100 Days of National Parks: Day 22 – Glines Canyon Dam, Olympic National Park

Glines Canyon Dam

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In the moment of crisis, the Wise build bridges, and the Foolish build Dams…

– Nigerian Proverb

It’s Earth Day, and I believe it’s important to not only celebrate the beauty and need to preserve our National Parks, but also to highlight the ways these parks are helping to reverse or combat some of the most serious problems facing the environment today.  From the unexpected environmental gains elicited by the reintroduction of the wolves into Yellowstone, to the protection and preservation of Cryptobiotic soil colonies in Arches and Canyonlands, National Parks are at the forefront of both large and small scale efforts to prevent the wanton destruction of the natural world, which as a species we seem so determined to do.

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”

– Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States

In recent years, on of the most important projects undertaken by any National Park, was the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam along the Elwha River in Olympic National Park.  After a two decade long planning process, the dam removal along the Elwha began in 2011, and finished in 2014 with the removal of this dam, allowing the Elwha to flow freely again for the first time in almost a century.  In the years since, there have been numerous examples of the dramatic positive impact this had on the environment of the Northern Olympic Peninsula, not the least of which was the return of critical spawning areas to numerous species of salmon and trout, which has helped reinvigorate flagging populations.

“We cherished it, and we respected it….We didn’t waste it, we used every bit of it….I may not see the abundance of fish come back in my lifetime, but I would like  to see it come back for my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, and the rest of my people, the following generations to come. It was a gift from our Creator, it was our culture and heritage.”

– Ancestor Beatrice Charles of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe

My research into dams and their highly negative impact on the environment started during the pre-production of my graduate thesis film New World Water, when I started to really look at the Colorado River.  It became immediately apparent to me that there was something profoundly wrong with our management of this critical waterway, when one of the longest and most important rivers in the U.S. didn’t even reach the ocean.  The idea that, in the name of creating untenable power and water systems for cities and farms in the desert where there should be no farms or cities, we would create dams that would so damage the natural world, and create lasting negative effects for the region and country as a whole, was simply mind-boggling.  Dams are quite simply one of the most dangerous and damaging elements of our infrastructure, and are in many ways just as implicit in the environmental degradation of our planet as carbon emissions or non-biodegradable materials, or any other big ticket environmental cause, and yet few people really talk about it as a serious issue that needs our attention.

Human civilization has been changing the Earth’s environment for millennia, often to our detriment. Dams, deforestation and urbanization can alter water cycles and wind patterns, occasionally triggering droughts or even creating deserts.

– Jamais Cascio, author

Many of our country’s, and our planet’s, most amazing places have been lost because of the wanton damming of important rivers over the past two hundred years.  Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Central California near Yosemite, was once considered a rival for the splendor of its more famous neighbor, and by many accounts even exceeded it, but the valley was buried under a lake that now sits behind the Hetch Hetchy Dam.  The myriad slot canyons and Ancestral Puebloan artifact sites throughout the Glen Canyon area of the Colorado were similarly buried, and lost forever, when the Glen Canyon dam went up outside Page, Arizona.  As sediment accumulates and water erodes the surrounding landscape, these once pristine examples of natural beauty are unlikely ever to return to their former glory, something I personally find heartbreaking.

All dams are ugly, but the Glen Canyon Dam is sinful ugly

– Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang

According to American Rivers, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of important watersheds across the country, there are almost 79,000 dams in the U.S. alone, many of which have become obsolete or in some cases are a danger to collapse of their own volition, which in itself could prove disastrous to communities downstream.  Managed dam removal is something that we should prioritize in this country, as we transition to less damaging forms of energy.  Through the restoration of critical waterways, we can stall or even reverse many of the issues facing the world today, including the depopulation of fisheries worldwide, the desertification of the American Southwest, and the loss of critical estuaries and natural habitats that are the life blood of healthy ecosystems.

Never give up; for even rivers someday wash dams away.

– Arthur Golden

I think that on this Earth Day, it’s important to look at those things which we can do to not only celebrate the natural world, but preserve it both for future generations and for ourselves.  I hope everyone takes a chance today to think about these things, and find those parts of the natural world that are most important to you, and think about ways they can be preserved.

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