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!

4 thoughts on “Where Wilderness protection is taken really seriously

  • 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!!!


  • 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…

  • 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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