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.