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Tribes Are Leading the Way to Remove Dams and Restore Ecosystems
Cameron Macias bent down to examine a small pile of sawdust-filled scat on the floor of the former Lake Mills on the Elwha River in the northwest corner of Washington state in 2016. It was a sign that beavers were moving into the area after a 100+ year absence. “There’s very small dam-building activity in some of the side tributaries,” says Macias, who was working at the time as a wildlife technician for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, of which she is a member. “It’s kind of funny and ironic because of the dam removal,” Macias says with a laugh.
The dams she’s referring to—the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams—were removed in 2011 and 2014 respectively, and together they are considered the world’s largest dam removal project to date. Many other tribes have looked to the success of the Elwha River dam removals in bringing down fish-blocking dams in their lands as well, including along the Snake River and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.
Together, the country’s 2 million dams block access to more than 600,000 miles of river for fish. And by 2030, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 80% of those dams will be beyond their 50-year lifespans. Given how obsolete and potentially dangerous this infrastructure will be, not to mention its negative effects on declining fish stocks, the best solution for many aging dams is to simply remove them. But bringing down a dam is a big job.
When the Elwha River dams fell, it was the culmination of many decades of successful partnerships among the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and dozens of other local and national organizations. Today, those partnerships continue to support the tribe in righting historic wrongs.
Righting Historic Wrongs
The Elwha Dam was built in 1910 to provide electricity to attract new settlers, in flagrant violation of a Washington state law that said dams must allow for fish passage. At the time, no one consulted the Lower Elwha Klallam people, whose culture rests on the salmon that would be blocked by the dams. “We had a few of the elders that even stood in the areas of the lower dam where they were starting to build to protest,” says Frances Charles, the tribal chairwoman for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
But the dam construction proceeded, and afterward, hatcheries were put in as a sort of life support to keep salmon populations afloat. Every year, the fish born in the hatcheries would try to return to the spawning grounds of their ancestors, banging their heads on the dam in a desperate attempt to get upstream.
“We ourselves felt like we were banging our heads against the concrete wall, no different than the salmon,” Charles says.
Things changed in January 1986 when the tribe filed a motion to stop the relicensing of the dams, citing that the dam prevented them from exercising their treaty rights because it blocked fish passage.
“The tribe and [Olympic National] Park and the environmental interests said, ‘You know, if you’re going to license these things, you’re going to provide fish passage,’” says Mike McHenry, the Tribe’s fisheries habitat manager. Studies showed that building fish passages wouldn’t effectively restore the salmon runs, so the decision was made to take down the dams. Still, it took an Act of Congress and $325 million to complete the job.
Congress laid out a monumental goal in the Elwha Act: nothing less than the “full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and native anadromous fisheries.” In other words, reverting everything back to the way it would have been without the dams.
To do this restoration work, tribal biologists regularly team up with universities and nongovernmental organizations to apply for grants. For example, Macias—on a grant funded by the nongovernmental organization Panthera—is now working on her Ph.D. at the University of Idaho by studying cougars and bobcats in her tribal homeland. And the tribe counts many other state, federal, and environmental groups as partners in monitoring the restoration of the Elwha.
To Charles, partnering with other groups makes sense in many ways. “[The dams are] not only impacting you as a tribe, it impacts everybody that’s around because they’re a part of that just as much.”
The Power of Treaties
Ultimately, one of the most effective tools in taking down the dams was the Treaty of Point No Point. The ancestors of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe signed the treaty in 1855, ceding their lands to incoming settlers in return for “the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds.” In a 1974 Federal District Court case, Judge George Boldt ruled that Washington tribes were allowed half of all the harvestable salmon.
“That really empowered the tribes in Washington to become, essentially, a co-manager with the state,” McHenry says. In essence, the ancestors of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe paid for their descendants to have harvestable fish today by ceding lands to settlers. Because the dams prevented that, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe had legal standing to bring down the dams.
There are almost 400 treaties between Indigenous tribes and the United States, each with different terms. This highlights a unique point for Indigenous people as land managers: No two tribes are the same. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a call where somebody wants the ‘Indigenous perspective.’ It’s not this ‘one thing,’” says Julie Thorstenson, the executive director for the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. “They’re all different, but the number one thing that they have in common is that they’re all underfunded.”
Indeed, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe relies on grants for much of its work, both before the dams went down and afterward for things like protecting fish during the dam removals, revegetating the newly drained landscape, and monitoring for signs of plant, animal, and insect recolonization.
The National Park Service alone has provided the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe with nearly $3 million in funding over the past nine years to pay for the restoration work, with funding set to expire in 2022. But full recovery could take far longer, up to 30 years, according to a fish restoration plan developed by NOAA. “It would be really bad if funding just ended in 2023, and we are working to ensure that does not happen,” McHenry wrote in an email.
Thorstenson says, “We hustle. I’m really always amazed at how innovative tribes are.” At the same time, she says, “Grants don’t promote capacity-building, and they don’t promote self-governance, which is what tribes are really striving for.”
Dam Removals Coast to Coast
The Penobscot Nation in what is now the state of Maine faced a similar dilemma starting in the 1880s: Three hydroelectric dams were blocking anadromous fish from getting back up the river.
“[We] had a little informal kind of contest going as to who is going to get their dams out first,” says John Banks, the director of the Department of Natural Resources for Penobscot Nation. “And Elwha beat our tribe by one year because we had a delay,” Banks says, laughing.
When the dam’s owners came to Penobscot Nation in 1999 wanting to know what they’d need to get tribal support during the relicensing process, Banks was ready with an answer.
“Number one, the removal of main stem dams must be on the table for discussion. And number two, we’re gonna bring our friends with us,” he said. “Because we know all about divide and conquer, and it’s not going to happen. We are going to work with these environmental groups.”
Penobscot Nation formed a trust with other NGO partners to bought the dams. They took out two of the dams and preserved a third, around which they were able to build fish passage. The original dam’s owners were able to ramp up production at other sites, and thus it was a win-win: the tribe got the fish back, and the hydroelectric production was maintained.
The Penobscot River Restoration Trust is considered extraordinarily successful, but Banks is also quick to highlight a frustration that many tribes share: Non-Tribal groups often don’t understand issues of Tribal sovereignty, Federal Indian law, or overall tribal interests. “That was challenging from time to time, but we just kept looking for commonalities and not our differences,” Banks says.
The Work of Restoration Continues
In the case of the Elwha, the tribe always had legal standing to challenge the dams. But it wasn’t until the tribe won over the public through outreach and education—such as the annual ceremony of traveling in traditional canoes to visit different Nations around Puget Sound—that they received enough public support to remove the dams and form fruitful new partnerships. “I really feel that a lot of the outreach with Canoe Journeys has been real good medicine to draw in the outside to really witness the cultural values of each Nation,” Charles says.
Despite setbacks, the restoration has made great progress. Macias describes one of the first big changes she noticed on the drained landscape back in 2016: “The entire lake bed at Lake Mills was just covered in lupine, and lupine is so good for so many reasons. It’s just beautiful. And it’s native,” she says. “Now, [in 2021, the landscape] is so incredibly dense with willows and alders. At this point, there are a bunch of conifers growing up among those different trees as well. And so we’re seeing plant succession,” she says, referring to the healthy process of how plant communities change over time after a disturbance.
That recovery applies to the salmon too: According to McHenry, the chinook, steelhead, and bull trout are all recolonizing well. Coho have been a bit slower, and the tribe is still waiting for chum and pink salmon to come back in good numbers. The tribe continues to work to improve the habitat for newly returning fish, such as by placing logs and boulders into the river to create pools where young fish can thrive. Kim Sager-Fradkin, the tribe’s wildlife biologist, has measured how nutrients from the ocean are making their way into birds and river otters further upstream via the migration of salmon, in addition to measuring how wildlife are using the newly available habitat.
Even though full recovery will take decades, Chairwoman Charles of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe isn’t worried. Her biggest piece of advice to the other tribes working on dam removal and restoration is simple: “Don’t give up.” Administrations, political whims, and partnerships may change, but the people (and hopefully the salmon now, too) will always be there.
“It took 100 years for these dams to be taken out. And we’ve lost so many of our elders through the process,” Charles says. “But we know that they’re looking down upon us and really grinnin’ for the pride that we could feel with everybody that was there from all ethics and all regions and all areas.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 3:22p.m. on July 15, 2021 to reflect that Kim Sager-Fradkin is a wildlife biologist, not a fish biologist, and Mike McHenry is the tribes fisheries habitat manager, not a fish biologist. Read our corrections policy here.
Lindsay VanSomeren is a writer covering environmental stories in the Pacific Northwest for outlets like Crosscut and REI. She also writes personal finance stories for outlets like Forbes and The Balance. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Northwest Science Writers Association, and Native American Journalists Association. Lindsay is based in Kirkland, Washington, and she can be reached at https://lindsayvansomeren.com/#/