The Elwha’s Last Dam Summer
It began 25 years ago as a radical idea: destroying two dams to save the Elwha River. It ends this month as a commonsense solution. Gentlemen, start your jackhammers.
ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 3, 1987, A MASSIVE CRACK appeared on the face of the Glines Canyon Dam, a 210-foot concrete arc that sits on the Elwha River, under the shade of Olympic National Park’s mighty cedars and firs, 12 miles upstream from the timber mill town of Port Angeles, Washington. Fortunately, the crack posed no threat to Port Angeles. It was merely symbolic—made of black paint, as were the letters Elwha Be Free written across the dam’s face. Glines, one of two hydroelectric dams that plug the 45-mile-long river, prevents salmon from reaching their ancient spawning grounds. As eco-pranks go, this one was audacious, beautiful, and wildly successful.
The crack’s anonymous artist seemed to spring from the pages of The Monkey Wrench Gang, the 1975 Edward Abbey novel that inspired the creation of the radical environmental group Earth First! A photo of the dam ran in newspapers nationwide that evening. Until then, few people outside of the Elwha River Valley even knew the dams existed. Removing them—or any dam—was a radical idea. In the American West, dams were our pyramids, monuments meant to last forever.
Twenty-three years and nine months later, on June 1, 2011, Kevin Yancy, a stocky Bureau of Reclamation project manager wearing a mustache and a hard hat, threw a switch and killed the turbines at the Glines dam and its brother, the Elwha Dam, forever. Yancy’s act was no prank. It came at the order of Congress, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In September, a private engineering firm will begin demolishing both dams notch by notch. By 2014, if all goes well, the radical prophecy written in paint a quarter century ago will come true. The Elwha will be free.
On the day the powerhouses died, I tracked down the anonymous crack painter at his home in Northern California. He’s now a 48-year-old EMT and documentary filmmaker. He operates a bamboo nursery. His name is Mikal Jakubal. And he’s ready to fess up.
Back then, he was a 24-year-old Earth First! activist. “I might as well come out about it,” he told me, after initially feeling reticent about claiming credit. “I’m not ashamed or worried about the law, but that’s part of my past and I’d rather not be known for it,” he said. “I’ve got other things going on now.”
Like most radical activists, Jakubal has mellowed in his middle age. But the passion still burns inside. When I mentioned the death of the dams, Jakubal brightened. “I think it’s awesome,” he said. I asked if he ever imagined the day would come. He paused. “I didn’t bring those dams down,” he said. “We were just one little bitty pinprick in the side of the system, trying to make this idea go forward.”
He’s right. One prank didn’t destroy the dams. But next month’s demolition of the Elwha River dams brings closure to one of the greatest environmental battles in Pacific Northwest history. It also marks the extraordinary evolution of an idea. What began as a radical scream from Mikal Jakubal— Tear down this dam!—became, over the course of a quarter century, a commonsense solution carried out by Kevin Yancy. Yes. Let us tear down this dam—calmly, methodically, and together.
THERE’S AN EBB AND FLOW TO THE movement of radical ideas into mainstream acceptance. It’s a little like the movement of legislation. Many bills get submitted. Few become law. Most are considered, found wanting, and get quietly washed out by the system. You see the pattern with gay marriage. Once off-the-charts extreme, same-sex unions gained some form of state sanction. Then comes a backlash—the Defense of Marriage Act, California’s Prop 8—and then the voters calm down, regret the backlash, and the idea’s acceptance rises again.
The extreme idea of tearing down the Elwha dams began with a tiny coterie of supporters, not just Earth First!, but a small coalition of Native Americans, fishermen, and more mainstream environmental activists who had been quietly tossing around the idea amongst themselves. To them, the idea didn’t seem so crazy. That’s because the dams were criminal from their inception.
In the early 1900s an enterprising Olympic Peninsula homesteader named Thomas Aldwell spotted a business opportunity in the Elwha River. With its tight gorges and steep drops, the river seemed perfect for a dam to produce power for sawmills in Port Angeles. With out-of-town investors backing him, in 1910 Aldwell hired a crew to raise a brutally ugly concrete structure. In 1912, they completed the 108-foot-high Elwha Dam.
Local history books treat him as a hallowed pioneer, but I’ll say it plainly: Thomas Aldwell was a corner-cutting, law-breaking, profit-driven son of a bitch. More interested in construction speed than dam safety, Aldwell anchored his structure to the canyon walls but not the bedrock under the river’s substrate. So when the reservoir—named, humbly, Lake Aldwell—filled in 1912, it promptly blew out the dam’s foundation. Aldwell ordered his men to stuff a bunch of fill material upstream of the dam, called it good, and began producing power in 1913. The Elwha Dam’s power sold so well that in 1927 Aldwell built a second dam eight miles upstream at Glines Canyon (named to flatter Aldwell’s investor, George Glines). The Glines dam was at least more structurally sound than its older brother, and the dam’s quarter-moon arc and long fall-away face had an undeniable elegance in its design. The dams’ combined 28.6 megawatts of power nourished the growth of Port Angeles. Thomas Aldwell’s Olympic Power Company prospered, and the Aldwell family became a fixture of the Seattle society pages in the 1920s and 1930s.
That prosperity came at a price. State law required all dams to provide fish passage. This proviso had been in effect since 1890 and was well known in a state whose citizens drew wages, recreational pleasure, and dinner-plate protein from salmon. But Aldwell didn’t want to build a fish ladder. So he simply ignored the law.
On another river, Aldwell’s malfeasance would have been regrettable. On the Elwha it was an outrage. Born nearly three quarters of a mile high in the knuckled fist of the Olympic Mountains, the river runs fast, steep, and cold—perfect conditions for spawning big salmon. The Elwha was one of the few rivers in the West to host both steelhead (an oceangoing trout) and all five species of Pacific salmon. The river’s narrow canyons and big rapids “acted as a biological filter, which selectively admitted only the largest and strongest spring Chinook to the spawning grounds,” fisheries biologist Jim Lichatowich explained in his book Salmon Without Rivers. “Over thousands of years, the run evolved into a race of giants, with individual fish commonly weighing over 75 pounds and many over 100 pounds.”
Salmon fed the bellies and the souls of the local tribe, the Lower Elwha Klallam, for millennia. A tribal elder recalled that as a little girl she once helped prepare a salmon so big it took her mother three steps to walk from the head to the tail. Then Thomas Aldwell erected his dams and brought the salmon, and the river, to ruin.
DAMAGE INFLICTED BY THE ELWHA DAMS was hardly a secret. Through the windows of the Elwha Dam control room, five generations of engineers watched coho, Chinook, sockeye, and pink salmon circle beneath the concrete wall every autumn. For the salmon, it was like returning to spawn in an Escher drawing. They could smell the upstream water but never quite reach it.
There was invisible damage, too. Like all dams, the Elwha structures trapped sediment behind their walls and messed up the river’s natural temperature controls, which are critical to the health of salmon. Instead of growing and flourishing with fresh sediment, the river’s estuary shrank under the force of the scouring, silt-deprived river. Salmon runs dwindled as the fish returned to an ever-more-barren stub of a spawning ground. A river that once nourished an estimated 300,000 salmon now sees about 5,000 return every year. “We only take about four Chinook a year for ceremonial purposes,” says Robert Elofson, the Lower Elwha Klallam member who directs the tribe’s Elwha River restoration efforts. Other types of wild salmon “don’t come back in numbers that would let us harvest them.” The Klallam lost both salmon and land as the hungry Elwha ate its own banks on the tribe’s river-mouth reservation.
Similar sagas unfolded on rivers all across America, which spent much of the twentieth century in a dam-building frenzy. The loss of a few fish seemed like a fine tradeoff for the benefits of flood control, irrigation, and cheap electricity. By the time we stopped building, America had erected 75,000 dams and left only a single major river—the Yellowstone—unblocked along its entire length. The Yellowstone empties into the heavily dammed Missouri, so the number of wild major source-to-sea rivers is…zero.
The nation’s love affair with dams began to sour in the summer of 1976, when Idaho’s Teton Dam burst and killed 11 people downstream. That disaster prompted a national inspection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and—surprise!—the Elwha dams popped up on the radar. The Elwha Dam was found to be unsafe, and the Glines Canyon Dam’s operating license had expired. “That’s when we started work on the fish passage issue,” recalls Elofson.
The tribe’s complaints about the dams had been ignored for more than 50 years. But the 1974 Boldt Decision, which affirmed treaty-guaranteed fishing rights, had given tribes like the Klallam newfound political clout. Their need for healthy salmon runs wasn’t just a quaint cultural yearning. It was literally a federal case. “As we studied the fish issue, people began to realize that, if the dams had to include fish passage, their electricity would be more expensive than just buying it off the grid from the Bonneville Power Administration,” Elofson told me. “At that point we thought it was possible to try for dam removal.”
Tribal officials and eco-activists weren’t the only ones floating the idea of dam removal. In 1986, Deputy Under Secretary of the Interior William Horn sent a memo to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that licenses hydropower dams, expressing concern about the Glines Canyon Dam. Those worries were couched in terms of safety, but it was actually a ploy to revive the salmon runs.
I reached Horn recently at his office in Washington, DC, where he’s a natural resources lawyer in private practice. He recalled the memo. “We were trying to put the fish back in the Fish and Wildlife Service,” he told me. Horn’s boss, interior secretary Donald Hodel, had been hired to clean up the mess left by James Watt, the notorious antienvironmentalist who served as Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration.
The memo and the idea remained largely buried. It was just another deputy-level DC issue. Enter, in the late summer of 1987, Mikal Jakubal and a bucket of paint.
JAKUBAL WAS NO DIRECT-ACTION ROOKIE. TWO YEARS earlier he’d helped invent the tactic of treesitting by climbing to the top of a Douglas fir to halt a clearcut in the Willamette National Forest. In the spring of ’87 he’d driven his van to the Olympic Peninsula to attend an Earth First! camping rendezvous and plan protests against the Elwha River dams. He returned in the summer and late one night, drove his van up the gravel road that leads to Glines Canyon. He parked on a side road and pedaled his bicycle the final mile to the dam. Using a mountain climbing rope and harness, he lowered himself over the side on a moon-bright night.
“I’d done plenty of climbing in Yosemite, so this was no big deal,” he recalled. With a bucket of paint clipped to his harness, Jakubal used a paint roller to put the crack on the dam. Then he started with the slogan. “I had to do running pendulums, back and forth, and kind of swipe out the letters.” Then, disaster: Jakubal ran out of paint. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t leave it at ‘Elwha Be Fr’!”
He climbed back to the crest of the dam, unclipped, pedaled back to the van, refilled the bucket, and raced back to the dam. At daybreak, he snapped a photo—with those final two Es in place—and rushed the film to a local wire service stringer.
FACTS KEPT PILING UP AGAINST THE ELWHA DAMS.
In the early 1990s FERC issued a report that, Shawn Cantrell recalled, “affirmed 90 percent of what those of us advocating for dam removal had been saying”: chiefly that it would be cheaper and more effective to remove the dams rather than install fish-passage screens and ladders. Cantrell worked for Friends of the Earth on the Elwha issue for more than a decade. He’s now the executive director of Seattle Audubon. In 1991 the Klallam tribe, the feds, and mainstream eco-groups mounted a challenge to FERC’s authority to license the two dams. Then a little realpolitik came into the game. Reading the writing on the wall, a few years earlier the James River Corporation, which owned the dams, had spun off the two structures into a separate holding company. If a legal judgment were to go against James River, the holding company might just declare bankruptcy and walk away, leaving two abandoned dams blocking the river.
In the end they cut a deal. The feds offered to buy the two dams from James River for $29.5 million and absolve it of all legal liability. James River agreed and instantly flipped from being a dam removal opponent to being one of the idea’s greatest Congressional lobbyists. In January 1992, less than five years after Mikal Jakubal’s painting prank, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to acquire the two dams and remove them.
And then, predictably, acceptance gave way to backlash. The citizens of Port Angeles said, Whoa! They’re dynamiting our dams? Draining our lakes? No way! “Save the Dams” signs popped up all over Clallam County. There was widespread fear that dam removal would lead to job losses at the Daishowa pulp mill, which used the dams’ power. Senator Slade Gorton, who’d earlier supported dam removal, reversed course and became the nation’s chief dam hugger. It’s worth remembering the cultural moment: Nineteen ninety-two was near the height of the spotted owl war, when folks on the Olympic Peninsula felt their way of life was under attack by urban environmentalists determined to halt the logging of old-growth forests. Dam removers became as suspect as spotted owl lovers.
At this point, the idea could have died. The 1992 Elwha Act authorized the purchase of the Elwha dams but—critically—appropriated no money to carry it out. Gorton blocked the project’s financing, citing local opposition in Port Angeles. But for the goodwill and courage of a handful of politically moderate Port Angelenos, the project would have faltered.
What happened was this: In 1994, Bart Phillips, a Clallam County economic development official, and Joe Mentor, a Seattle lawyer and board member of Olympic Park Associates, a park advocacy group, formed a citizens committee of business owners, paper mill executives, and other Chamber of Commerce types. “We were at loggerheads, and nothing was happening,” Phillips told a reporter. “Everybody was shouting, and nobody was listening to the community.”
The citizens group looked at the facts and found that the dams were, indeed, outdated salmon killers whose power could easily be replaced without the loss of jobs. “The aha moment came when we saw that the cost of relicensing the dams would be so exorbitant that it would jeopardize hundreds of jobs at the Daishowa plant,” Phillips recalled in July. The group’s final report, issued in 1996, recommended removing the dams. It had a profound effect on the community. The citizens group didn’t win over everyone in Port Angeles, but the bulk of the opposition melted away. “Up to that point it was seen as an extreme outside environmental perspective being foisted on the local community,” Joe Mentor recalled recently. “The citizens advisory committee changed that. People were pretty skeptical at first, but after hearing the arguments, they realized it was in fact in the community’s best interest to remove the dams.”
Once the Port Angeles citizens committee came aboard, Slade Gorton was left nearly alone in his opposition to dam removal. He held the Elwha dams hostage for a few more years before being swept out of office in 2000. Soon after $325 million in dam removal money came through.
Today, Gorton belongs to the remaining few of those bitterly opposed to the removal of the Elwha dams. Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times called him up for a quote on the day the power shut down. “It is something with which I disagreed, and I don’t wish to be reminded of it,” Gorton told her.
THERE WILL BE NO GRAND DENOUEMENT FOR THE DAMS. The Bureau of Reclamation removal plan includes explosives, but they’ll be used in small doses, not in one big bang. They’ll start chipping away at the Glines Canyon Dam in September, removing it in seven-meter cubes like a game of Tetris played backward. The reservoir will drain slowly. The Elwha Dam may be more exciting—its bedrock plugs will be blasted away. But few will be on hand to see it happen. The dam’s road closed in July and the whole area will remain a secured construction zone until the project’s completion in late 2014. The return of the salmon will take a little longer. Fisheries experts expect spawning runs to ramp up steadily over the next 20 years. If all goes well, by 2031 there could be 120,000 spawners swimming up the Elwha.
Mikal Jakubal, the crack painter, wishes he could be there this fall. “I’d like to take the first swing” with a sledgehammer, he told me. But he won’t. Dam removal has long since left the hands of radical environmentalists. It’s in the care of engineers, contractors, heavy equipment operators, botanists, and fisheries biologists. It’s in Kevin Yancy’s world now. A few days before pulling the power plug, Yancy sat at his desk in the Elwha Dam control room, faced a wall of hundred-year-old dials and gauges, and reflected on the dams’ end days.
“For this river and this story,” he said, “it’s time.”