Largest dam removal in U.S. history begins at Olympic National Park

This weekend the largest dam removal project in U.S. history will begin on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, located in the state of Washington. The three-year process to dismantle both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams will free the river for the first time in nearly a century and is expected to have a restorative effect on the park’s ecosystem, as well as an economic impact on the surrounding communities.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the removal of the two dams is expected to boost the salmon population in the river from an estimated 3000 now to nearly 400,000 once the project is complete. Researchers believe that they’ll see the return of all five species of Pacific salmon to the river, as native species return to their previous habitats. Those fish provide important nutrients and resources for more than 130 species of both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife in the region, including other fish, bears, and eagles. Those populations are expected to thrive as well, once the salmon numbers increase to their natural levels.

The benefits to the region don’t end there however, as the removal of the dams is also expected to bring new economic opportunities as well. The dramatic increase in fish populations should lure in both sport and commercial fishermen, and the newly opened 70-mile river corridor will offer fantastic paddling too. The NPCA estimates that the Elwha River restoration project could bring as many as 500,000 new visitors to the area on an annual basis, translating into an additional $57 million per year in the local economy.

As the dam removal process gets underway, conservationists and fans of the national parks have kicked off an official dam-breaking festival known as Celebrate Elwha. Over the next few days, the festival will host a number of music and art events, as well as several guest speakers, as the Park Service, the NPCA, and the community celebrate this important step towards restoring the natural environment at Olympic.

This is such an important move in creating a healthier environment in the park and the wilderness around it. I applaud everyone involved in getting these dams removed and opening up the river once again. If you’ve ever visited the Elwha River valley in the past, you will definitely want to schedule a return trip in a few years time, as it is likely to be a very different place in the years ahead.