Puget Sound Voices: Exhibit traces Elwha restoration

The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound spoke with Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes about the exhibit Elwha: A River Reborn, which opened at the University of Washington Burke Museum on November 23rd. The exhibit is based on the book of the same title by Mapes and photographer Steve Ringman, and tells the story of the largest dam removal in U.S. history.  

Book cover for "Elwha: A River Reborn" by Lynda Mapes
Book cover for "Elwha: A River Reborn" by Lynda Mapes

In 2011, scientists and the general public watched with fascination as one of the most significant watershed-scale restoration projects ever undertaken began on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. With the removal of the Elwha Dam, the river now flows freely for the first time in 100 years and is seeing returns of salmon and other wildlife that once flourished there. Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes has observed many of these changes first hand, and has been covering the Elwha story since 1992. She is currently a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, and spoke with Encyclopedia of Puget Sound managing editor Jeff Rice. The exhibit is scheduled to run at the Burke Museum from November 23, 2013 to March 9, 2014. 

 

Nothing prepares you for the drama of what nature can do if you get out of the way. Nothing prepares you for the shock of seeing it in its power, in its motion, in its beauty. After you have floated on a lake, to then stand in the same place and watch a river run is an incredible experience.
—Lynda Mapes
 

EoPS: 

Tell me a little bit about Elwha: A River Reborn. The pictures and scale of your book seem perfectly designed for a museum exhibit.

Lynda Mapes (LM):

It was a very easy translation and I was really thrilled to work with the people at the Burke. It was interesting to see how they would take the same subject matter and use their tools and their expertise to tell the Elwha story.  That was a lot of fun. And they put a lot of heart and soul into it.

They also had some amazing collections to bring to the story, including the artifacts from some of the Indian villages, from the settlements that were nourished by the Elwha. They had some fantastic fossils documenting just how far back in time the presence of the salmon has sustained people. They were able to tell the whole story, not just a fish story, not just an ecosystem recovery and federal project story, but really the history of the landscape coupled with the human dimension.

 

EoPS: 

What can visitors expect when they walk in the door of the exhibit?

LM:

The first thing they’re going to get is a real sense of the beauty of the Elwha. I mean, the photography by my colleague at the Seattle Times Steve Ringman is incredible. He spent a couple of years in the backcountry with scientists, and up in a plane, and shooting underwater and tromping around in the woods—basically doing whatever it took to capture the beauty of the Elwha ecosystem and its complexity.

They’ll also get a sense of the scale of the task. [In cases where the reservoirs have drained] you’re dealing with these very, very fine sediments sometimes five and more feet thick. So, for instance, this is not any kind of normal native plant restoration project. Even Mt St. Helens was easier in that respect because at least there you had some biological legacies to work with. You had soil. I mean here this is almost lunar. Steve’s photos document this. You truly are at the baseline of a new world.

 

EoPS:

The effects of the dams over the past 100 years are striking, but can you paint a picture of the Elwha before the dam?

LM:

The Elwha before the dam was a remarkable place. You had a place where you could find every single species of anadromous fish in the Pacific, including all five species of salmon as well as steelhead. There wasn’t a single season of the year that you did not have fish migrating in that river, either as adults returning from the sea or as juveniles heading out to sea. Because of that you had an abundant food chain. You would have found a signature of marine-derived nutrients in everything from otters on the riverbank to trees in the forest miles from the shore, and even the songbirds that feed on insects in that river. It was a richness moving from the sea to the land using the river as its conduit brought by the fish.

There was also this incredible conveyor belt of sediment from the high mountains down to the sea. Sometimes we’re so focused on the fish and wildlife that we forget about the material reality of a free flowing river and its importance in moving big wood and sediment and rock and sand down from the mountains. That’s what creates the complexity of the river—its side channels, its pools, its meanders, its life. Before the dams you had every scale of sediment and wood in that river and all manner of complexity, and that in turn is what supports a diversity of life. You don’t get one without the other. They’re absolutely interconnected.

 

EoPS:

That diversity of life was described in the diary of one of the early Elwha explorers as being like “Barnum’s menagerie.” That’s a great phrase. Can you talk about that?

LM:

I was so struck by that. It’s spectacular to read about the early explorers trying to camp by the [nearby] Queets river in August. One of them described how he was not able to sleep for all the slapping of tails and the snapping of brush as animals come to feed on the carcasses of the migrating salmon runs. And I did a little camping of my own at the same time of year along the Elwha, and it was absolutely deathly quiet. You don’t hear a thing above the dam because even at that same time of year when there should have been abundance, there were no salmon. You don’t get that “Barnum’s menagerie” of life that the salmon help feed.

That said, it’s important to realize that it’s not that long gone. When I talked to Dick Goin who is a Port Angeles resident—he’s in his 80s and moved to Port Angeles in the 1930s—he spoke evocatively and poetically of the Elwha of his youth. Now that’s not that long ago. We’re talking about the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. Even as recently as then he would see great clouds of insects. He would see a cougar taking the carcass of a salmon off a log. He would see these great plunge pools with the dark shapes of enormous fish. And you know, the Elwha is such a powerful ecosystem, given the tiniest chance it can definitely come back and it already is.

 

EoPS:

That was one of the things that struck me in the book— the absolute determination of nature. Even over 100 years, the Chinook kept trying. You write, “Even after a century of futility, the fish never stopped trying to come home.”

LM:

The persistence of those fish is legendary. I mean they do this anywhere they get the chance. Whether it’s because of landslides up in Alaska, or volcanism in Mt St Helens, or when we finally get out of the way with our dams. They know what to do and they come barreling back. They’re almost intimidating they are so fierce in their ability. And it’s not just the fish.  I mean everything comes storming back. Going out there to walk those mudflats even in the earliest days after the removal of the first dam you saw animal prints everywhere, you saw grass beginning to take route. Nature moves right in. 

 

EoPS:

Did that surprise you? What was the biggest surprise coming out of all of this?

LM:

You know, nothing prepares you for the drama of what nature can do if you get out of the way. Nothing prepares you for the shock of seeing it in its power, in its motion, in its beauty back in its place doing what it naturally does. After you have floated on a lake, to then stand in the same places and watch a river run is an incredible experience.

Lynda Mapes at Lake Aldwell. Photo by Steve Ringman.

[Editor's note: Part of our discussion looked at the background and history of the dam itself. For her book, Mapes did significant archival research and found some intriguing facts about the creator of the dam that, as she points out, hit close to home. The dam’s creator, Thomas Aldwell worked as managing editor of a local newspaper, The Port Angeles Tribune-Times.]

EoPS:

Considering that you are a journalist, do you have any sense of guilt that the dam was started by, of all things, a newspaperman?

LM:

(laughs) Isn’t that funny?

 

EoPS:

Tell me about the origins of the dam and this character Thomas Aldwell.

LM:

Yes, that was delicious to discover. As I did the primary source research in the special collections at the University of Washington and at the Clallam County historical society, there was an incredible documentary record to appreciate, mine and ponder. I was literally able to hold Thomas Aldwell’s personal scrapbooks in my hands and look through the newspaper clippings that he had clipped and underlined and annotated. So I could get a sense of what he was excited about. And so here you had this former newspaperman who is not only is the guy behind the lower dam—Elwha Dam—but then you also see the newspaper articles [he clipped] from yes, the Seattle Times, totally cheering on this infrastructure development. I mean the idea back then in newspapers was to join with entrepreneurs in quote unquote “upbuilding” the communities where they were. It was certainly not about preservation or ecological survival. Ecology and nature, they were the enemy. They were the things to be subdued and brought to our use. And the newspapers, including the one I work for today, more than 100 years ago were rooting for that. And it was fascinating to, as a reporter, literally walk in the absolute shoes of reporters at the same newspaper in the same place more than a century ago, taking a very different notice of the same situation.

 

EoPS:

Yes, a very different role for the newspaper in this case. So what was it that motivated Aldwell to want to create this dam? Did he simply see an entrepreneurial opportunity?

LM:

Yes, Aldwell came west on purpose. He came to Port Angeles because he thought places like Seattle and even Port Townsend were just already too developed for his taste. He wanted a much more blank slate, and in the Port Angeles of 1910 he got that. You literally had cattle walking down mud streets and you had people hacking a living out of the woods as best they could. You had a post office in a stump. I mean, people were paying for those newspaper subscriptions with chicken eggs. And he very quickly figured out that this was a place where an entrepreneur could make a killing.

One day, a man walked into his newspaper offices and started telling the story of his own hydropower mill down in Oregon, and literally Thomas Aldwell got the idea then and there on the spot. He had already seen the Elwha River in his walks around the area and he realized that he had an unprecedented opportunity to take the power of that river and put up a dam. And so he quietly, sneakily, stealthily bought up all the land that he would need to build the dam and the reservoir.

Then he did what you could never do today and just as one guy set forth with no regulation whatsoever to build a hydropower dam. And he had the compliance of the state of Washington in doing that! Without any kind of fish ladder even though that was illegal at the time. They basically worked a deal for him as a powerful entrepreneur. You can read this at the state archives. Back and forth letters between Thomas Aldwell and the then head of the fisheries commission for the state of Washington.

The suggestion actually came from the fish commissioner that what they could do for Thomas Aldwell is build an impoundment and let that be an impoundment for a hatchery that could also be, of course, Aldwell’s dam. So that was the deal they struck and it really was this trade of habitat for hatchery. We’ve been on a hundred year bender about that ever since, and it started with the Elwha.

 

EoPS:

And the rest, as they say, is history.

LM:

But it’s really important to recognize that we’re also making history now. The step that we’ve taken in knocking down these dams is truly historic for its scale and for its boldness. And it has all kinds of powerful repercussions. Some of them are ecological but some of them are political. This has already been seized on by dam removal advocates for other rivers, saying ‘look, it’s not crazy anymore. We do this and we do it for good reason in places where it makes sense.’ 

Because you’re writing for scientists, I also wanted to make one other point in particular, which is the importance of baseline monitoring that has been done by teams of people out there. And I want to really take my hat off to the interagency cooperation that I witnessed. Everybody from USGS, NOAA Fisheries, Tribal fisheries, the state level— everybody was really working together out there in a very beautiful way to witness.

It was so clear that they were doing the very best kind of public science of trying to set a baseline of data so that we could see five years from now, or 50 years, whether we kept our promise to ourselves. Did we do what we set out to do? If I were to say the only thing I’m worried about with regard to the Elwha and the only thing I would ask anyone to be vigilant about going forward, is monitoring. That we don’t lose our attention span on the Elwha and go onto the next cool thing. If we do not keep up with that perpetually we will never learn the lessons of the Elwha, we will never know that we did what we set out to do. 

 

 

About the Author: 
Jeff Rice is the managing editor of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.