For many people in the Northwest, the undamming of the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula marked a dramatic turning point. The largest dam removal in the world at the time, it unleashed the lifeblood of a watershed that fronts on the Salish Sea.
Among the Salish people working on the project was Elwha tribal elder Robert Elofson, a man who dedicated fifteen years of his life to the effort as the tribe’s Director of River Restoration. He has since returned to his passion and works as a commercial fisherman now with a boat in Port Angeles.
Cruising on Freshwater Bay near the mouth of the Elwha recently, he looked back toward the shoreline that connects the water to his tribe’s reservation lands.
“I’ve spent a great deal of my life down here on this beach, but the beach is brand new now,” he says with a laugh.
Sediment from the dam removal has washed in and created a sandy beach now where there used to be large rough cobblestones, inhospitable to much life. Among the benefits of the softer sand is the return of a native Dungeness crab fishery.
“Crab will only live where they have sand where they can dig in, either to get out of the heavy tides or escape predators. So as soon as the sand came back, the crab came back,” Elofson said. “We’ve been out here harvesting for about two years, and the dams have been out for about four.”
The ecosystem is coming back after dam removal, though perhaps not as quickly as Elofson had hoped. Still, he says there are great signs of renewal, such as the spotting of fish redds 27 miles upstream of the river mouth.
“There has not, for one hundred years, been anything more than five miles upstream. So they are moving up, it’s happening slowly,” Elofson said.
Those areas upstream are part of the Salish Sea, a concept Elofson says is important because of the way it acknowledges the tribes that live all around it.
The majority of the tribes around the Salish Sea are Salish tribes. Elofson said there’s an important cultural element to the grouping, which is defined by their roots in shared languages.
“It means that we are connected, and there was a lot of trade, a lot of communication, a lot of social activity. It’s good to know that our tribe was one of the tribes that are a part of that language group, and that that language group is very large and very widespread,” he said.
For many people, “Salish” also implies a spiritual connection to the sea.
“The spiritual connection of the tribes to their environment is widespread. I would like to think that the Elwha Klallams have taken it as far as anybody has,” Elofson said, pointing to their extensive work on the north Olympic Pennisula.
“We just feel that you have to take care of things in order for them to keep being productive, and that it is an important part of our heritage to actually take action, to make sure they stay productive.”
He hopes humankind will somehow reach the point where we’re not just slowing down our negative impact on the Salish Sea, but improving upon it, though he knows it won’t come easy.
“I have said this for many, many years. Unless we want to start turning things around, things aren’t going to improve,” he said.
A statistic he heard recently gave him some hope:Last year for the first time in Washington state there was less rip-rap and bulkheads put in than were taken out.
“That’s a sure sign that we are starting to watch things, to be more careful,” Elofson said.
“And I know that it’s costly and it takes a lot of work to make improvements. But, you have to put the efforts in. Just sitting there waiting for someone else, not putting out the effort, is just going to lead to things going more downhill.”
As he talks, he stops for a moment to take in his surroundings.
“I mean, look at out here. It’s just gorgeous,” he says gesturing toward the water and the shorelines beyond it.
He goes on to list the nearby landscapes of the Salish Sea that add to the beauty of the place, from the Olympic Mountains in the distance to the river valleys all around to Vancouver Island. But it won’t just stay that way without any action.
“There are places where my tribe has dug in and done a lot of work. I think we’ve worked on somewhere between six and ten streams, done major projects. And they all are producing better now than they were when our restoration crews started 25 years ago,” Elofson said.
The biggest risk looming over all of this is the prospect of a major oil spill because of the increasing tanker traffic expected with the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline
“I mean, no matter how careful you are, avoiding any kind of catastrophe forever seems like it would be impossible. So I hope we can minimize how much it happens,” he said.
There is a lot at stake for everyone around the Salish Sea and especially for Elofson personally, who devoted so many years to improving the health of the ecosystem through the Elwha dam removal and river restoration.
“It was the number one project for the tribe for many, many years,” he says. “It was a very difficult undertaking and I’m very happy that the tribe put in the time and effort to getting it done… I’m very proud of it.”