In the remote corner of Washington state deep in the rain forest of the Olympic National forest a river is about to be set free. Also set free will be thousands if not hundreds of thousands of native plants and at least seven
salmon species including the Chinook, steelhead, chum, coho, sockeye, bullhead and pink salmonids. (1) And the river has been home to the Klallam people for millennia.
Much of the river moves fast and wild with intense churning power. River water crashes against large boulder and granite walls and then it rounds a corner and spreads itself out in flat valleys, seeming to sleep and mosey along. The kayakers dream journey, this place has remained pristine because it is locked within the vast wilderness boundaries of the Olympic National Forest. The Hoh Rainforest is to the north, Hurricane ridge of Mount Olympus tower above the river. The source of the clear cold fast waters comes from this mountain also. To the north the river drains into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and it’s diverse ocean estuaries.
Giant red cedar, majestic western hemlock, Sitka Spruce, Douglas fir and big leaf maple line the river banks. Youthful willows and red alders sprout on the river sandbars. In other places trees over four centuries old still stand tall or lay in the forest acting as a “mother” tree to thousands of other native plants.
THE DAM REMOVAL BEGINS
On September 16th, 2011 a ceremony was held near the Elwha dam on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State to mark the starting of the removal of two dams that bloc salmon spawns on the Elwha river. The two dams – Elwha Dam (108 feet tall, built in 1913 just five miles from the river’s mouth) and Glines Canyon Dam (210 feet tall, (Lake Mills) built in 1927, several miles upstream of Elwha Dam) were built without fish passage, and completely blocked salmon from historic habitat.
A little over 100 years ago the Elwha river was dammed to create hydroelectric power. Once the Elwha dam was put in place the river backed up behind and created what was called Aldwell Lake. It was named after the man who built the dam. This same man failed to build fish ladders on this dam and one further up the river called the Glines Canyon Dam. In the last hundred years the vast salmon runs that swam the upper 38 miles of the river ceased, and the river ecosystem was damaged. The altering of the ecosystem was extensive. River sediments used by the salmon to lay eggs were diminished and the water in the river began to warm. Salmon runs feed the plant life and sustain the health of the land and the forest. Vast numbers of native plants were swamped by the damning of the river. Before the dam the salmon runs numbered more than 400,000 fish annually. After the dam was built the count of salmon on the lower river was estimated at 4,000 fish annually.
The return of salmon to this ecosystem will return vital marine-derived nutrients to the watershed, restoring a vital food source for the range of life that inhabits it.
What is the relationship between salmon runs and native plants, forests and wildlife health?
THE SALMON – giver of life
Salmon swim up streams and rivers, spawn and die. Their carcasses create excellent fertilizer that is full of ocean minerals and nutrients. When a salmon run is destroyed native plant and forest diversity also suffers.
Fish help create diversity and range of native plant habitat by helping to move plant seeds, roots and branches along the rivers and streams. Some plants have parts that
break off when fish eat them, or swim through them, and the plant may float to a different area and root.
ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION HAS BEGUN
Today, the Elwha River is the site of one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in National Park Service history. As part of the effort to restore the Elwha River ecosystem, the Olympic National Forest personnel and volunteers have been constructing a new native plant nursery called the Matt Albright Native Plant center. After the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams are removed and the reservoirs drained, hundreds of thousands of native plants will be used to restore native vegetation to the over 700 acres of lakebed that will re-emerge after the reservoirs are drained. Stabilization of the new banks to control sediment movement downstream is crucial in preserving native salmon habitat in the lower river and estuary.
For more on this project go to the website for the Friends of Olympic National Park
THE INTERRELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SALMON AND FOREST
In a recent study conducted by biologists with Simon Fraser University researchers concluded that Salmon contribute to the diversity and health of the forests. The study showed not only did the carcasses of the spawned-out salmon benefit stream side plants but that bear and wolves will often carry the carcasses into the forest and further “feed” the forest.
The study was extensive and covered the interrelationship between salmon and forest ecosystems bordering 50 streams on the remote central coast of British Columbia, Canada.
Link to study: http://insciences.org/article.php?article_id=9994
In addition to restoring the fish habitats, the draining of Lake Mills (and removal of and Lake Aldwell will create an additional 715 acres (2.9 km2) of terrestrial vegetation, improving elk, insect, bird and other wildlife habitats as well. Increased sediments loads are also predicted to help restore the retreating delta at the mouth of the Elwha.
The $325 million project is expected to last three years and eventually restore the Olympic Peninsula river to its wild state and restore salmon runs.
For more on Pacific Northwest Salmon recovery project check out this beautifully illustrated booklet that includes lists of native plants that benefit Salmon.
For more on Salmon life cycles check out:
(1) Potential range map of seven salmon salmonids on the Elwha river. Website: http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/potential-range-of-salmonids-in-the-elwha.htm