Final plan to remove Elwha Dams

It was reported this week that a [final agreement has been reached to remove two dams on the Elwha River]( This [controversial project]( has been in the works since the mid-80s, when Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Olympic Park Associates, and Sierra Club intervened in the FERC dam relicensing process and called for removal of the dams. The fight raged on for over 10 years. Ex-Senator Slade Gorton fought with all his might against this project, and although he succeeded in delaying it for years, we canned him in 2000.

highwaterlwr_sm_1.jpgThe first time I saw the Elwha dams was a key moment in my own journey towards environmental activism. When I first came to the Northwest on a college trip in January 1994, we toured the Elwha dams with Brian Winter, who is still the Park Service’s project lead. Seeing the dams, and imagining what it would be like to restore the 70-plus miles of salmon habitat locked up behind them was the first I really saw what restoration on a watershed scale could look like on the ground. I also saw how the Elwha project was a precedent that frightened the old guard of the industrial economy (personified by Slade) because it proved that removing dams made scientific, economic and moral sense. No wonder they fought so hard to deny, delay and obfuscate. And in the end, it was the Elwha that helped me see how every enviromental issue is both a fight protecting and restoring a specific place and a contest of ideas about how people should relate to the natural world.

What can we learn from this victory? For me, the Elwha dam story that environmental fights often need to play out over 10-20 years before we win a final victory. There’s no one single tactic that will do it, and no one organization that can move the ball all the way down the field. The network of activists, scientists, tribes, lawyers, citizens and politicans is what gets the job done, and it requires a long-term commitment from many actors, even when the public’s attention is elsewhere. It also shows how “radical” ideas can become “mainstream” if they have passionate, smart and articulate champions who can hang in there and make the case to folks who aren’t already “true believers.”

A big congratulations to all the people who have worked so hard to get to this point, and to all the folks who are continuing to see this project through to completion over the next few years.