We all owe a big “thank you” to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. They never gave up on getting those two dams torn down, and today that dream is becoming a reality. For 100 years they have had to wait for their treaty rights to be restored and for the salmon to return.
The salmon never gave up either. At a recent dam removal celebration, I saw 73 chinook swimming in the clear green water at the foot of the Elwha Dam, ready and waiting. And it won’t be long before the river’s estuary comes back to life, too, with clams spitting all over the place.
This is a great day for the Elwha people. All of those who have gone before us, they’re looking down on the Elwha, too, and they are witnessing what is happening. And they are smiling.
“Economic engine,” “long-term economic growth” and “investment in the future” are some of the words folks have used to describe the benefits of the dam removal project. And they’re right.
The Olympic Peninsula has struggled for years as its fishing and timber-based jobs have disappeared. But removal of the Elwha River dams is changing that. Hope is replacing fear, jobs are being created and more will be coming in the long term. More than 3 million people visit Olympic National Park every year, and that number will only increase as the river is restored.
These things tell us that we can conserve our natural resources and create jobs, that healthy salmon runs and a healthy economy can go hand-in-hand.
The dam removal celebration was really a celebration of treaty rights. For a century the two dams built without fish ladders denied the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe its treaty-reserved right to harvest salmon, a fundamental part of tribal culture, communities and economies.
The Lower Elwha Klallam people have put their treaty rights to work, restoring the Elwha for all of us, Indian and non-Indian. Their name means “strong people,” and you damn well better believe they’re strong. It’s the kind of strength we all need on our journey to recover the salmon.
That’s because there are many more Elwha dams out there. They might not look the same, and they might go by other names, like floodplain development, shoreline armoring and nonpoint pollution, but they are just as deadly to salmon. And like the Elwha dams, they’re just as effective at denying all of us healthy salmon runs, a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We all need to make sure that no more dams get in the salmon’s way.
Billy Frank, Jr., is Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.