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Learning from Elwha: Mistakes of the Past are Lessons for the Future

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This weekend was a big milestone for the environment. The Department of the Interior officially began the nation's largest river restoration project on the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic National Park with the removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams. When the dams on the Elwha River were created 100 years ago, its builders cut corners by neither building fish passages nor securing the dams to bedrock, which caused significant long term damage to the surrounding ecosystems, from the river to the estuary to the coast.

The Elwha River Restoration Project is of great interest to active members of the conservation and fishery communities and local residents who have been advocating for the dam's removal for many years. Not only will the dam removal provide substantial economic benefit, the environmental impact of removing it is profound. Sediment will be redistributed, waterways will be restored, and five salmon species are expected to return to their natural migration route that has been dormant since the dams were erected in 1911. The project also provides a tremendous educational opportunity for the next generation to learn from the past by providing a clear picture of how our actions impact the environment.

One of the biggest complaints around environmental education is that our schools are failing to foster a lasting connection to nature for our students, to understand how our individual actions positively or negatively impact the environment, and how our lives are subsequently impacted by those changes. This event presents an incredible learning opportunity for us to understand first-hand this cycle.

Below are some of the largest lessons we can learn from this project:

Impact on marine life: The salmon runs that once numbered more than 400,000 adult returns in over 70 miles (110 km) of available habitat, now number less than 4,000 adult returns on only 4.9 (7.9 km) miles of available habitat. The removal of the dams is expected to bring 16 fish species that reside in the Elwha River, including steelhead, trout, charr, and five species of Pacific salmon back to the 70 mile stretch. In addition to the economic benefits for fisherman, the return of salmon as a food source will increase the vitality of bears, eagles, and other animals that have been deprived of this vital food source.

Impact on Coastal and Marine Habitats: This project offers a living laboratory for us to watch and learn what happens when natural sediment flow is reestablished and salmon return to their ecosystem, and how different habitats impact one another. At the start of dam removal in 2011, approximately 19 million cubic meters of sediment was trapped behind the two Elwha River dams, enough to fill a football field to the height of 11 Empire State Buildings. The reintroduction of sediment following the dam removal is expected to slow coastal erosion and modify coastal and marine habitats near the Elwha River mouth.

Impact on the next generation: The salmon will also renew the culture of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe that has lived along the river for many generations. Not only will the dam removal bring the fishing livelihood back to the tribe, but draining of the reservoirs will uncover sacred sites.

As I was preparing for my trip to Elwha this weekend to attend the dam removal celebration, I returned to a video that some NatureBridge students from the Klallam Tribe created in 2008 about their experience. Over a five-day period, Klallam students learned about their tribal culture and science along the Elwha River watershed. The watershed restoration effort serves as an important case study for these students and provides an inspiring framework that connects science with explorations of the cultural history of the Elwha River. By learning about the ecological restoration of Klallam lands, these youth make a strong connection to the land and are inspired to take action to see it restored to its natural state. One student says in the video, "Removal of the dams on the Elwha dam is our legacy and we are ready. We are marching to our own drumbeat and the world is watching." Indeed, we are ready and watching.

Educators, parents and government leaders should take a closer look at the Elwha River Restoration project as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes. There are approximately 82,000 dams listed on the National Inventory of Dams in the United States, and much like Elwha, many were built nearly 100 years ago without a full understanding of long-term environmental implications. By taking the time to learn about the Elwha now, we can learn from past mistakes and become environmental stewards for our fragile environment.

Additional resources on the Elwha River Restoration Project are available here:

Susan Smartt is the CEO of NatureBridge, a non-profit that provides environmental education programming in our National Parks. Follow on Twitter at @NatureBridge.

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