Dam It, No!

Posted on August 22, 2012


Twitter is an amazing tool for linking people to other people and what is happening in the world. Just yesterday I was connected to an issue that I had heard bits and pieces about over recent years in a way that I would not have expected to be affected by so profoundly. When I dug into the layers of the links I found that there were connections deep enough to surface some emotions. By posting links on twitter to my salmon related writings and including the appropriate hashtags, namely #salmon or #fish, I was notified of an online paper.li hosted site called The #Salmon Daily. Opening last night’s offering presented me with three headlines that all pointed to the same exciting news: Return of the Kings! Chinook Salmon Return to Undammed Elwha River.

Elwha Dam in the Olympic Peninsula with salmon unable to pass prior to dam removal photo borrowed from Sierra Club website

The Elwha River dam became operational in 1913 and since that time all five species of Pacific salmon and the steelhead that used to navigate reaches up to 70 miles upstream of it have been restricted to the waters below the dam. The Klallum people of the Olympic Peninsula were in turn confined to harvest salmon in the same area. Removal of the dam occurred five months ago and in that time the people and the salmon have reclaimed territory recognized only by their oral tradition or DNA. For example, there is a site that is known in the oral history of the Klallum people as their birthplace. Soon after the waters above the dam receded, this place, a monument of the people, was found. Another location provided evidence that the Klallum people participated in a salmon culture at least 8,000 years ago. And now the Chinook salmon are navigating in waters above where the former Elwha dam stood. The Olympic National Park was created 25 years after the dam became operational and this is the first time that Chinook have breached the park boundary.

I am overjoyed and overcome with feeling for the salmon and the people of the Elwha River who have been able to reclaim what could have easily been lost to them forever. I think it is remarkable that the Elwha dam was removed and that what was hoped for was recovered before the memory of it became buried in time.

At this moment in time there are countless people who are connected to the salmon culture in Bristol Bay and we are standing at the edge of a proposed development that, if the Pebble Mine goes through, will change the landscape that the salmon and the people have partaken in for likely as long as the 8,000 years that the Klallum and their ancestors have. Instead of a damming project we are looking at a mining project. Mining projects have dams of sorts in the form of tailings impoundments that hold back mining waste. It appears that impoundments will be built on the upper reaches of the Kvichak and Nushagak River drainages and any information that has been provided by the entities that would develop the mine indicates that unlined earthen dams will be used. When they leak, not if, sections of river below the tailings dams will be dammed as well. If contamination breaches lower containment, more dams will need to be created. When the mine has reached the end of its life the waste behind the dams will have to be treated forever lest it breach its bounds.

Pacific Chinook salmon photo from http://www.peachygreen.com

Travis Rummel and Ben Knight are filmmakers who have created a film that has been a great awareness building tool in our fight to protect Bristol Bay. “Red Gold” is a documentary that introduces the stakeholders, the would-be developers and the land of Bristol Bay. It so happens that they have also made a film about the removal of the Elwha River dam called “DamNation.” The trailer looks very compelling and I know from watching Red Gold many times that Ben Knight knows how to make incredible pictures while Travis Rummel is good at finding the story. The two make quite a team and you may have also seen some of Ben’s work as the Director of Photography for the recent Frontline piece about Bristol Bay entitled “Alaska Gold.”

The date on Byron Bennett’s shirt represents the date of the Celebration at the Dam photo from http://www.elwha.org

The Klallum people and the salmon people of Bristol Bay are standing at opposite ends of development. One culture is recovering what was lost at the hands of expansion and the other is working to protect what it has. It is my hope that the two will not pass each other in crossing this line, but will meet each other on the same side and share their salmon and stories.