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How Country Walkers Guides Are Saving the Salmon in Olympic National Park

With a lifetime spent trekking the mountains and byways of this unique landscape, Country Walkers guides Heather Harding and Eric Kessler are passionate about environmental sustainability in the region.

The magic of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula lies in its incomparable beauty, rich biodiversity, and unique cultural heritage. Travelers joining Country Walkers on the Washington: Olympic National Park Guided Tour will experience this unique biosphere in all its glory—including walks through the rainforest, adventures along the Pacific coast, and evenings spent in charming, waterfront accommodations bathed in starlight. This is a region relatively unknown to tourists—you won’t find crowds of buses here. Instead, you’ll find the authentic Pacific Northwest in all its natural glory.

With a lifetime spent trekking the mountains and byways of this unique landscape, Country Walkers guides Heather Harding and Eric Kessler are passionate about environmental sustainability in the region. As they lead you through narrow river gorges and one of the world’s premier coastal temperate rainforests, they take great care to point out the local plants and animals encountered along the way. The region’s storied waterways are an area of particular focus—and a heartwarming narrative of environmental resilience, courage, and success.

Salmon: The King of the Elwha River

Salmon have been charging up the Elwha River and its many tributaries since time immemorial. They are a critical element in the area’s natural ecosystem—supporting bears, wolves, eagles, and, of course, humans with an important source of sustenance. In the eons before colonization, salmon were plentiful in the region’s abundant waterways, providing food for many local tribes. “Remember, this is the wettest location in lowest contiguous United States,” points out Heather. “There are many rivers and streams which lend the landscape rich diversity and beauty—and provide ample breeding grounds for salmon. In the summer, we have a naturally-occurring seasonal drought—so, summer travel is quite dry. In the wintertime, the rains feed the rivers and keep the landscape green and lush.”

To the local Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, access to salmon has always been of primary importance. In the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point, the traditional homelands of the Lower Elwha Klallam were taken by the young Washington Territory, but the tribe’s access to salmon fishing and shellfish harvesting were legally preserved.

Sometimes, You’re Dammed If You Do

A dam, of course, is a barrier that holds back the water in a river or stream. Dams are often used to create reservoirs—or as a means of generating electricity. In 1910, Thomas Aldwell and the Olympic Power and Development Company built the Elwha Dam for the purpose of generating hydroelectric power for the region, soon followed by the construction of the Glines Canyon Dam in 1926. Neither was constructed with the welfare of the local salmon population in mind—and although fish passages and other conservation initiatives were required by law, the developers cut corners and omitted many requirements. Even worse, the Elwha Dam was not constructed with good structural integrity—without a proper bedrock anchor, the dam blew out and flooded the Lower Elwha Klallam village in 2011. Ultimately, the dam was determined to be structurally unsound.

With the dam’s developers skirting Washington State fish passage requirements, the dams prevented the salmon from moving beyond the dam to spawn upstream. Consequently, salmon populations rapidly declined. This had a negative impact on the livelihood of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe—sharply reducing the value of their legal fishing rights under the Treaty of Point No Point. Clearly, a crisis was at hand.

Not All Superheroes Wear Capes

When we think of heroic acts, we rarely think about public servants combing through mountains of federal regulations to discover a miniscule footnote that saves the day—but in the case of the Glines Canyon Dam, that’s exactly what our hero did. “Nobody wanted to touch a dam removal project, because dams were considered green energy. Conservation organizations were turning the other cheek,” explains Eric. “In the 1970s, a volunteer at a local outdoor club was researching regulations published by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC.) Dams in the United States must be relicensed every 50 years, and Rick Rutz was also a salmon advocate, so he was searching for loopholes in FERC regulations. He found one little sentence in the middle of the massive Federal Power Act of 1920 which said dams cannot operate in national parks. Although Glines Canyon Dam wasn’t in a national park when it was built, the boundaries of Olympic National Park had changed over the years to encompass the dam. Thus, Rick was able to demonstrate that the Glines Canyon Dam was operating illegally—and that started the ball rolling.” Over the next 20 years, the Glines Canyon and Elwha River dams were the subject of an intense political dispute involving questions about the legality of the dams, the treaty rights of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and the dam’s environmental impact. “Throughout the years, we would talk about the dam removal project with Country Walkers guests as we walked through the Elwha River Valley,” recalls Heather. “We would walk out to the dams and explain the environmental impact. Finally, the dam removal project started happening, and in September 2011 we heard the first smash of the giant bucket on the Elwha River Dam, and in 2014, they broke the Glines Canyon Dam.” Success certainly feels rewarding to this passionate group of environmental activists!

Culverts & Waterways—Washington State Makes Good on Treaty Rights

Dams aren’t the only man-made structures blocking the salmon’s access to spawning grounds—roadside culverts also create barriers to salmon migration. “They didn’t understand fish when they put in the culverts,” explains Eric. “Salmon need to travel down tiny creeks to get to the ocean—returning years later to spawn in the places they were born. Roads with culverts across creeks have been blocking salmon migration for decades.” The current project replaces the older culverts with new designs that allow fish to navigate the waterways so they can spawn upstream. The new culverts are engineered to mimic natural waterways—and are big enough to let both water and salmon pass through. Although the culvert replacement project is still in progress, already the region has seen a massive resurgence in salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. “The salmon did come back,” says Heather. “The day they removed the Glines Canyon Dam, there were steelhead trout going upriver. The next year, we were rafting in the area above where the Elwha Dam used to be—and we saw Chinook salmon everywhere slapping the boat with their tails. So, it was a total success, and the salmon population has been rebounding ever since.”

To see the newly-released waterways of the Elwha River (and perhaps view the happy slapping tails of the proud Chinook salmon) join Country Walkers and our local guides for an eye-opening adventure!

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