The 30-year struggle to resurrect Washington's Elwha River and one of its spectacular salmon runs
PORT ANGELES, Wash. - The Elwha River is talking, and Dick Goin is talking, too. We're on the riverbank, about a quarter mile from where the Elwha meets the ocean on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Upriver, the Olympic Range crouches - 7,000-foot peaks cradling glaciers and soft-shouldered lowlands bearing a patchwork of lush forests and clear-cuts. Downriver lies the cobble-strewn stretch of delta where the Elwha empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The smell of salty surf, the cry of gulls above the murmuring Elwha, the shimmering surface of the river reflects in Goin's eyes.
It is not clear if he sees any of it. Goin is looking into the past, at biblical volumes of pink salmon flooding the lowland tributaries of the Elwha.
"When I was a lad in the late '30s, there would be several hundred thousand salmon. From the mouth to the dam and from bank to bank it was like maggots; it was just crawling. You couldn't see the stream bottoms."
Back then, when salmon returned to spawn and die in the Elwha, they were more than a spectacle; they were a godsend. Goin's family had abandoned a failing farm in Iowa and moved West to escape the Dust Bowl. But the Great Depression followed them. Making ends meet was difficult everywhere, even on the lush and fertile Olympic Peninsula.
"The game was pretty well already all shot down, and so it was what we could raise - a couple of hogs - and what we could grow in some awfully rocky soil. Salmon were an extremely important part of the diet for lots of people."
Though he didn't realize it, the river's abundance was fading even then. In 1908, well before Goin's time, dam construction on the Elwha destroyed the salmon fishery in all but the lowest five miles of the river. A second dam was built at Glines Canyon, several miles above the first dam, in 1926.
At a more gradual pace, the undammed lower reach was unraveling too, because the dams prevented sediment and gravel from replenishing productive spawning beds.
"It dawned on me when I was about 16 or 17 that I was seeing less fish each year. But I wasn't alarmed about it, because there were still so many, and so few people utilizing them."
Now, at 70, Goin is retired from his career as a machinist for the now-defunct Rayonnier Pulp Mill. He spends many days on the river, helping tribal and state biologists keep tabs on the few returning salmon and steelhead. Goin views his volunteer work as repayment to Elwha salmon for the years of nourishment they provided him and his family.
And the Elwha gives him hope.
"The Elwha is the only river that just has one thing wrong with it," Goin says. "It doesn't have logging, it doesn't have development, it doesn't have degradation through chemicals; it has one thing only and that's the dams. Up above them is an absolutely pristine watershed where the natural situations can take place unimpeded by anything."
Goin believes that removing both the dams will restore the Elwha to its former glory. But not everyone shares his optimism.
"We have an awful lot of locals who don't believe that there were that many fish in this river because they didn't see it," says Goin. "What we're talking about here is explaining a sunrise to a blind man."
Even so, in 1992, the U.S. Congress saw the light and passed the Elwha River Restoration Act, authorizing the Interior Department to acquire the dams and remove them, if necessary, to restore the river. It was a rare, quicksilver moment for resource management, when all parties, even those who had benefited from years of cheap hydropower, gave their blessings to the legislation.
But as any civil-rights activist knows, it's one thing to pass a law, and another to implement it. Today, the two Elwha dams remain standing while Congress slowly comes up with the money needed for their removal. The restoration of the Elwha is a beacon of possibility for Western rivers. But its roller-coaster history is also a reminder that patience, tenacity and luck, as well as money, are needed to take down the dams.
Time is also required. And time is the one thing the river's salmon may not be able to afford.
A moveable feastThe Olympic Peninsula is a 6,200-square-mile thumb on the Northwest landmass of the United States. Hulking mountains sit in the center of the peninsula, large and high enough to house glaciers. Rivers run out of these mountains in all directions.
The Elwha descends northward roughly 44 miles to the ocean. The upper reaches of the Elwha contain miles of ideal salmon habitat. Lower down, the river has cut through resistant basalts, forming a series of chutes and canyons.
Historically, young salmon spent up to two years in the deep holes and riffles of the Elwha, and then migrated out to sea. Several years later, the fish returned to their birthplace to spawn and die.
The Elwha's rough water and steep, narrow cataracts encouraged chinook to grow larger and more powerful before returning to spawn. The 100-pound Elwha chinook were legendary among natives, early explorers and settlers.
Equally remarkable were the returns of pink salmon, estimated at over a quarter million fish. The river supported all five species of Pacific salmon native to the Northwest, and 10 anadromous - or ocean-going - fisheries altogether. The Elwha's productivity was on par with the salmon-rich rivers of Alaska.
"These days, you can go to other Olympic rivers in the fall and get just a glimpse of how it was on the Elwha," says writer and naturalist Tim McNulty. "When salmon were running, there were eagles in the trees, and ravens, and bear coming down, river otter, raccoons at night, winter wrens - all kinds of wildlife. It was a moveable feast."
And salmon were the main course. Juvenile salmon fed not only birds and mammals, but resident fish stocks. Spawned-out adult carcasses hosted insects and microbial life, and enhanced plant growth. Scientists have even found marine carbons in riparian trees where salmon spawned.
In the lowlands, salmon were a central part of the diet, economy and culture for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
"The Elwha was our mother watershed. Some believed that we originated from the salmon people, that our spirit came back through the salmon," says Rachel Kowalski-Hagaman, a Lower Elwha Klallam woman. "We learned about life on the Elwha, we practiced our religion on the Elwha. She was our home."
But in 1908, these life cycles were abruptly altered when Thomas Aldwell and his Olympic Power Company started building the first dam on the river.
An industrial engineAldwell had arrived from Canada in 1890, part of a full-tilt rush to develop the Northwest. Land was free for the claiming. Coastal forests were shipped to San Francisco. Canneries lined the coastline, the industry moving northward as it wiped out one salmon run after another. Seattle was booming.
One hundred and twenty miles from Seattle (as the crow flies), and accessible only by boat, Port Angeles was still a backwater. Doctors visited patients by horseback and canoe. Settlers eked out hardscrabble lives canning and salting fish, staking claims, and farming rocky soil. A few hundred Lower Elwha Klallam Indians camped on the beach, and made their living fishing with nets. It was the frontier Aldwell was looking for - ripe with industrial potential waiting to be harnessed.
Logging operations of the time were primitive; fir, spruce and cedar were felled with hand tools and the giant timbers hauled along greased roads by teams of oxen.
Aldwell understood that Port Angeles would need an industrial engine to tap the riches of the forest. But it took him almost two decades to realize that the land he owned on the Elwha River could be that engine.
When a visitor from Oregon described how he'd powered a pulp mill with a small dam, Aldwell had a brain wave: "A pulp mill! I was thinking of the canyon on my claim ... the volume of the river and steep walls of the canyon ... Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the strait; the Elwha was peace, power and civilization," Aldwell recounts in his autobiography, Conquering the Last Frontier.
Aldwell's Elwha Dam would mean more than power for Port Angeles mills. The tiny town could become a portal, where the vast timber resources of the peninsula were processed into lumber. The project attracted investors, and by 1916, Aldwell had convinced the wealthy Zellerbach family of San Francisco to purchase the dam and open a mill in Port Angeles.
Hydropower meant amenities, income and trade for peninsula residents. Within a few years the citizens of Port Angeles and other towns had electricity in their homes.
But the project had gotten off to a rocky start. Instead of anchoring the dam to bedrock, Olympic Power attached it to canyon walls on either side. In 1912, the base blew out, and an almost-full reservoir emptied in a matter of hours.
Olympic Power plugged the hole with tons of concrete, and rafts of conifer branches on the inside, but even today people question the safety of the dam, and water still leaks from it.
The dam also violated a state law requiring that all dams facilitate fish passage. The spectacle of thousands of fish dashing themselves against the concrete barrier provoked outrage from Native Americans and whites alike. Citizens wrote angry letters to the state fish commissioner, demanding that the law be enforced.
Instead, state officials suggested Aldwell's obstruction could facilitate a hatchery operation. Though not a legal alternative to the fish passage, the hatchery was built at the base of the dam and run by the state, only to be abandoned after several years. Meanwhile, the Washington Legislature had altered the fish-passage law to accommodate the hydro projects across the state.
In 1920, the federal government institutionalized what Aldwell had accomplished illegally. The Federal Power Act established hydropower as the "highest and best use of watersheds," and formed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to license private hydro development.
In 1926, FERC licensed a second private dam upriver to Northwest Power and Light in what became Olympic National Park in 1938. The Glines Canyon Dam, at 210 feet, was twice as high as the Lower Elwha Dam, and more than doubled the power output from the Elwha. The license for Glines Canyon Dam was good for 50 years - an eternity.
Working through FERC's murkThat eternity ended in the mid-1970s, when the first generation of FERC dams exhausted their 50-year operating permits. The Elwha projects were complicated - there were safety concerns, the lower dam had never been licensed, and the Glines dam was in a national park. It took almost a decade for Crown Zellerbach, the corporation which now owned both dams and the Port Angeles mill, and FERC to feel their way through the unfamiliar process of dam relicensing. Ultimately, FERC determined that the dams were linked, and the procedure would work toward a single license for both.
In spite of these delays, executives at Crown Zellerbach expected a perfunctory process. Orville Campbell was in charge of the relicensing procedure: "The company had used the dams for some 50 years," says Campbell (see story page 11). "There was no reason to believe FERC wouldn't give us another 50."
But while the dam-owner worked toward relicensing, times were changing. Business-as-usual ran headlong into powerful new environmental laws and the ghosts of millions of vanished salmon. On the Elwha, the Department of Fisheries estimated that the loss of the salmon runs had cost the people of Washington $500,000 annually.
Native American rights had finally received some federal attention. In 1974, federal Judge George Boldt ruled that treaty rights guaranteed tribes half of the historic levels of fish in Northwest rivers. The "Boldt decision" gave the Lower Elwha Klallam a powerful new weapon to press their case for fish passage on the river.
"They claim that the dams were cheap power," says tribal member Kowalski-Hagaman. "They have never been cheap power. The taxpayers have paid for that power. The ecosystem has paid for that power. Lower Elwha Klallam people paid for that power. The dams basically displaced our tribe."
Then, Bruce Brown's 1982 book Mountains in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon captured the public imagination and systematically confirmed what locals were witnessing with their own eyes. River by river, Brown correlated salmon declines on the peninsula with intense resource development: Logging, construction, chemical pollution, overfishing, diking and riprap had destroyed many of the once-abundant runs. Hatcheries had failed to make up for the losses.
As the public became aware of the irreplaceable value of wild salmon, the Elwha emerged as a rare opportunity to turn back the clock. Much of the river was pristine and largely protected within Olympic National Park. Salmon advocates like Dick Goin returned to the problem of the dams again and again. Federal agencies and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe were also pushing for Elwha salmon recovery. But it took one key strategist in the 1980s to change the way FERC would look at dam relicensing on the Elwha.
Richard Rutz, a wilderness activist in Seattle, learned about the Elwha almost by accident. While they were poring over maps looking for potential wilderness areas, a fellow conservationist told Rutz the story of Elwha salmon and the dams.
As he looked into the Elwha further, Rutz saw what others before him had missed: that the Glines Canyon Dam (now inside Olympic National Park) was illegal, that federal law mandated environmental review of all dam relicensing, and that the power created by the dams was replaceable.
"The license holders had come to believe that these licenses were theirs by right. They didn't think they needed to do anything in order to get (the licenses) again," Rutz recalls.
Though not a lawyer, in 1984 Rutz wrote a legal intervention in the FERC relicensing process for four environmental groups. The intervention argued for dam removal and complete restoration of the Elwha watershed. By 1986, FERC had allowed the Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Olympic Park Associates, and Sierra Club to become interveners in the relicensing process.
When FERC opened the doors to these groups, it opened the floodgates to contemporary environmental values. It would not be able to close them again.
Speak softly and carry a big stickRutz's intervention became a rallying point for those who opposed a new license for the Elwha dams. Prominent environmental lawyers quickly agreed to represent the case in court. Then, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service put their weight behind dam removal.
But this coalition needed more than a legal foothold - it needed a reasonable public face, as well. The spotted owl wars were sending shockwaves through the Northwest's logging industries. A plan to bring back salmon at the expense of hundreds of jobs in Port Angeles would be politically difficult. In fact, the local congressman proposed a bill to relicense the dam.
By this time, Crown Zellerbach's assets had changed hands: James River Corporation owned the dams, Daishowa America owned the mill and the rights to Elwha hydropower from both dams. Jim Baker, an activist who worked with the Northwest Energy Coalition, suggested that Daishowa could easily conserve the 20 megawatts of electricity the dams provided by retrofitting new motors and improving efficiency. The proposal showed that dam removal could be a solution for all sides, and it ended the push for a quick fix from Congress.
With an aggressive public outreach campaign, a constructive, win-win solution on the table, a strong legal case and legal muscle to back it up, proponents for dam removal pressed their case.
The interveners filed a lawsuit with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Federal agencies were also in court, disputing which had jurisdiction over a private dam inside a national park boundary. Then, to everyone's surprise, FERC made salmon restoration its top priority in its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for relicensing.
While environmentalists view the draft EIS as a "real wake-up call" for the dam owners, Orville Campbell, who was still working on behalf of both companies to relicense the dams, disagrees: "Even though it indicated we were going to have to mitigate the projects, the draft EIS indicated to us that FERC was headed toward granting our license."
In spite of how messy things appeared on the surface, political leadership in Congress recognized an opportunity. Tom Jensen, a U.S. Senate committee lawyer who worked with Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., began to visit with the various parties.
"The potential for a solution was obvious," Jensen recalls. "It was a very small amount of electricity used by one mill. The Elwha was in a national park, and we had the possibility of restoring a genetically unique salmon run in pristine habitat. It kept us believing that we could get to a deal."
The companies, too, had begun to recognize the value of letting go of the dams. "I began to see that holding onto the dams might not be in our best interest," says Campbell. "We are in the business of making paper, not producing power."
It took a year and a half to hammer out legislation. Congressman Al Swift, D-Wash., and senators Brock Adams, D-Wash., and Bradley carried the bill through their committees and onto the floors of the U.S. House and Senate.
The Elwha River Restoration Act passed in a legislative photo finish - on the final day of the congressional session Oct. 7, 1992. With some grumbling, President George Bush signed it into law.
The Act authorized the Interior Department to acquire the dams for $29.5 million, and remove them if necessary to restore the river. It guaranteed replacement power to the mill from Bonneville Power Administration, and a clean water supply for Port Angeles.
"It was a great day for the tribe," says Lower Elwha Klallam attorney Russ Bush. "Some of the elders had gone to Washington, D.C., to testify. And now it looked like we were going to have salmon back. The tribe had a ceremony on the reservation to commemorate the event."
The lost decadeBut even with a law in place and a river-friendly Clinton administration in office, Elwha salmon had to wait for politics. First the 1994 Gingrich revolution put a crimp in Elwha funding. Then, Sen. Slade Gorton, the powerful Washington Republican who chaired the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee, scuttled appropriations for Elwha several years in a row.
"The goodwill and collaboration we had created that allowed the bill to pass then got squandered for a period of time, when Slade Gorton changed positions and went from being a sponsor of the bill to being an opponent," says Jensen.
First Gorton blocked funding because he said there was no local support for dam removal, and later he wanted a guarantee that the Snake River dams in eastern Washington would not be breached (HCN, 12/20/99: Unleashing the Snake).
But a diverse panel of community leaders in Port Angeles persuaded Gorton that there was local support for removing the Elwha dams. The Elwha Citizens' Advisory Committee held meetings for several months in 1994, and eventually concluded that the modest amount of power wasn't worth the loss of the state's finest salmon runs.
"In the early '90s, Port Angeles was plastered with anti-dam removal signs," says Joe Mentor, a former Senate aide and board member of Olympic Park Associates who helped mediate the advisory committee. "This committee worked through the difficult questions and came up with a dam-removal strategy it could support."
After several lost years, Gorton abandoned his attempt to link Elwha restoration to guarantees that the Snake River dams would not be breached. Then, project coffers started to fill, and the federal government was able to buy the two dams in February of 2000 - the first step toward dam removal.
Countdown to restorationCurrently, funding for the Elwha project is halfway there, with about $70 million of the $140 million needed to complete the project appropriated. This year, the Bush administration approved the entire $25.8 million budget request from the National Park Service for Elwha, and the U.S. House followed suit.
"They've learned from Gorton's mistakes on Elwha, and they know that the project has broad support," opines Shawn Cantrell, who for 10 years has coordinated the Elwha effort in Seattle for Friends of the Earth. "They're not going to call a lot of attention to the fact that it's funding a dam removal, but they're not going to fight it either. They probably just want to push it on through and not leave any fingerprints on it."
Plans for dam removal are on schedule for late 2004. The Park Service is negotiating now with the city of Port Angeles on a plan to protect the city's municipal and industrial water supplies during restoration.
According to Brian Winter, who heads the restoration project for the Park Service, the river will do much of the restoration itself, gradually transporting downstream 17 million cubic yards of sediment and gravel that has backed up behind the reservoirs. The park service will revegetate the area that is now underwater with native plant species, and it will work with state and tribal hatcheries to protect the Elwha's native salmon stocks.
Within 10 years after dam removal, scientists estimate, salmon numbers in the Elwha will go from 3,000 to 390,000.
But the glacial pace of funding may not suit the fish. Several stocks are already extinct, or functionally so, and even the strongest runs are on life support, maintained by state and tribal hatchery operations. The legendary Elwha chinook, plagued by parasites and lack of habitat, now number in the hundreds.
The dark irony of a free Elwha without native salmon stocks has activists braced for another roller-coaster, should restoration funding become snagged in Congress again.
"There are many things which could cause delay down the road. We're just staying alert so that as soon as these things surface, we deal with them head on," says Cantrell. "It's not over till the dams come out."
For others, dam removal won't be the significant moment. "The day I'm really waiting for is the day I can hike up above where the dams are now, and watch the first living torpedo come up the river looking for its ancestral spawning grounds," says Jim Baker. "That's the day when I'll really feel like it was all worth it."
A new eraActivists are divided over whether the fight to save the Elwha, with its national park location and broad support, signals anything about the potential to take down other sdams. Rutz prefers to see the Elwha on its own terms.
"We've always maintained that this is a unique situation with unique factors," he says. "That's true of every river."
But Baker, who went on from the Elwha to the Snake River fight, insists that the Elwha is in some ways a blueprint. He allows that the Snake River dams are on a different scale in terms of their size, federal status and the amount of hydropower they generate. Nevertheless, he maintains that what has been missing from the Snake fight thus far, are not persuasive arguments or citizen support for dam breaching, but political leadership.
What most everyone can agree on is that the Elwha has helped usher in a new era for watersheds where the value of dams is no longer a given. Salmon returning to the upper reaches of the Elwha will make it a laboratory for recovery efforts throughout the Northwest.
"When we give the fish a chance, the incredible vitality of those animals is going to show us what habitat means," says Tom Jensen. "Without an example like Elwha, we'll never be able to do anything other than speculate from our various positions about what we ought to do on the Columbia, or the Snake, or elsewhere in the range of the fish."
Dick Goin agrees. Goin views the issue with the simple wisdom of a man who just turned 70 this year: It's time to open the door for these fish, and get out of the way.
"I know I will never see the abundant runs that I saw when I was a boy. But I'll be satisfied enough to go and see them and to know that the fish are in the upper Elwha again. When salmon are in their own river, things are whole again, and all the good things that come with salmon can start to happen."
Adam Burke is producer of Radio High Country News.
This article was supported by the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Shawn Cantrell, northwest
regional director, Friends of the Earth, 206/297-9460,
Brian Winter, National Park Service Elwha restoration project
manager, 360/565-1323, www.nps.gov/olym/elwha;
- Orville Campbell, Fort James Paper Corporation
hydropower manager, 360/452-0663;
- Dennis Sullivan, chairman Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, 360/452-8471 ext.149, www.elwha.org.
For further reading ...
- Dam Removal: A Citizen's Guide to
Restoring Rivers, River Alliance of Wisconsin, 608/441-257-2424, or
on the Web, www.wisconsinrivers.org (look for 'smalldams');
- Dam Removal Success Stories. Available with a donation to NW Friends of the Earth, 206/297-9460, Foenw@foe.org.