Where Wilderness protection is taken really seriously

Demand for Water

The demand for ‘clean’ energy is growing fast and so does the number of water dams. Nowadays there are more then 50.000 big water dams all over the world and their number is increasing – as much as their impact on our life, wildlife, nature and Wilderness. Even this ‘ecologically’ friendly source of energy has a black side.

Particularly some gigantic dams proved to have negative impacts, such as the Three Gorges Dam at Jang-c-tiang River in China, where the construction forced millions of people to move because their homeland was covered with water. Another example is the Asuan Dam at Nil River in Egypt where the construction buried and devastated hundreds of historical and architectonical monuments. Xing Dam at Xing River in Brazil, the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam is currently under construction on one of the Amazon’s major tributaries, and it is devastating hundreds of km2 of pristine rain forest. There are thousands of smaller water dams worldwide which are impacting our environment and Wilderness.

Dam removed to save Salmon

Nevertheless the Water Dam at Elwha River, in Washington State, US is a rare and relevant precedent for Wilderness conservation. The dam built hundred years ago at the edge of Olympic Wilderness is an extremely exceptional example, an important model and hope for future. It shows how important coincidence is in strong and clear legislation and public activism! It is a story about personal commitment of hundreds of individuals – from grassroots NGO members in the field to the professional lawyers in Washington D.C. and a story about respect and love of Wilderness, about an uncompromising fight to protect Wilderness as written in the U.S. Wilderness Act.    “….long time ago, some of the richest runs of salmon outside of Alaska crowded upstream to their spawning grounds in the wild Elwha River.

The river ran freely through towering forests that sheltered a living community including black bears, cougars, eagles and the Klallam native people. Ten different runs of salmon fish, including coho, pink, chum, sockeye and Chinook salmon, along with cutthroat trout, native char and steelhead, made this pristine valley their home. One hundred years ago, local entrepreneur Thomas Aldwell saw the river and its narrow gorges as an economic opportunity. He sought to harness this raw, massive energy, and so he formed plans to build a hydroelectric dam.  The story of Elwha River Dam started, the construction began in 1910, functional in 1913 and the Elwha Dam supplied energy to power the pulp mill. A growing economy and a greater demand for industry led to the decision to build another dam. By 1927 the Glines Canyon Dam was built 12 km upstream. Power generated by the dams helped fuel the local economy, but the failure to build fish ladders left the Elwha River with a mere 7 km out of 78 km available habitat for returning salmon fish.

The dams had a number of other serious impacts including sediment and silt blockage behind the dams, erosion of the river banks, and the effects on a huge portion of the Wilderness in the park and people that previously relied on the fish populations for subsistence.

However by the 1980s, perspectives had changed and legal challenges and policy questions arose about licensing dams in a national park. After several years of political processes, Congress settled the issue in 1992 by passing the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act.”

The process and decision in this case was not simple and easy. It took another 20 years of debates and preparation until the final decision of the U.S. Congress to dismantle both dams! Why? Because 82 % of Elwha River watershed belongs to the Olympic National Park and almost 70 % belongs to the U.S. Wilderness Preservation System.

The decision was finally done and both dams are currently gone! Dismantled! Salmons and trout freely migrate up the Elwha River and the Olympic Wilderness is complete again.
There is a strong message behind this story we all should learn. To achieve this kind of triumph, two things are usually needed:

  • good strong legislative framework – in this case U.S. Wilderness Act and
  • a bunch of committed people – in this case professional staff of US National Parks Service and grassroots NGOs. For more information: Elwha-River-Restoration-Brochure

Maybe this story has a lesson, what can inspire us how to restore our freshwater Wilderness here in Europe!

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4 thoughts on “Where Wilderness protection is taken really seriously

  1. Hi Alison,

    Yes Max is right!!!

    On the top of that I was personally pretty much amazed when I read very first time about this project and that something like that is possible???

    To remove all dam and restore a river ecology just because of Salmon and conflict with wilderness act!!!

    Something which always amazed and inspired me!!!

    The fight to protect global wilderness is not hopeless battle…and even more important here in crowded Europe!!!


  2. Hi Alison,
    In Fact the Dams are needed for Hydroelectric Powergeneration, but the people locally have felt the negative impact as well. I remember personally visiting the Bonneville Dam inon the Columbia River and even there the discussion has been going on the remove this gigantic dam because of the negative impact on the Salmon and shad. In fact the first dam was removed in idaho in 1973. The latest once were tin 2012 the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, Washington as part of the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. In 2012, the 108 ft (33 m) Elwha Dam and the 210 ft (64 m) Glines Canyon Dam will be removed to restore stocks of Pacific Salmon and trout species to the Elwha River watershed. The removal of these blockades will allow migratory salmon to travel past the dams and upriver, an event that has not occurred since the dams’ creation in 1913. Salmon reintroduction will allow for marine nutrients to return to the upper river beds as the salmon end their life cycles, providing a valuable research opportunity for interested parties.

    The main issue we as wilderness advocates have, that at the moment we lack green energy sources to offset these hydropower dams. In the US, the energy is just transferred to coal firing plants and nuclear power plants and more recently to GasPower Plants fuelled from fracking gas… So its is not a clear cut WIN WIN unless we all lobby for alternative energy sources.

    A colleague is actually writing a piece on the issue of fracking in the Ukraine and we also see the potential negative impact of this whole russian versus EU mess, that it will open the door to fracking which so far has been kept at bay.

    Lets all join forces to remove unncessary dams where their impact on nature is too disastrous and assist in the development of green energy sources and help people fight for the last wilderness in europe. Did you also see the movies on Chernobyl? Lesson to be learned there…

  3. Vlado, thank you for this – I had no idea that such a specific removal of infra structure had been chosen to do. Lovely example. I am guessing it came abut because the dams are no longer ‘needed’ so this is not necessarily a triumph of other values and priorities over economics. But a nice one all the same.
    Best as ever, Alison

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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