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Image: Andrew Waits

Washington state erected plenty of monuments to power and progress in the twentieth century—the Grand Coulee Dam, the Space Needle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct. We still use them all, daily. But in 2011 when the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams—on the Elwha River near Port Angeles—were disassembled with the tidy precision of a Lego set, they left little more than wild-looking bends in the river. It’s still the largest dam removal in history.

When the dams were erected and swallowed the Elwha’s famously huge salmon a century ago, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe complained right away; no one listened. Then came the eco-activism of the 1980s, when a 24-year-old Earth First! acolyte took a bucket of paint up to Glines Canyon one night and painted a giant fake crack on the dam, complete with fissures that spread like tree roots on the 210-foot concrete face, and the words “ELWHA BE FREE.” People looked, but nothing happened.

By the ’90s, the feds agreed that the structures were deteriorating and not even particularly useful anymore, but the spotted owl controversy had turned environmentalism into a dirty word on the Olympic Peninsula. It took until the next century before federal undamming funds arrived, and until 2011 for a giant excavator to chip a real crack into the Glines Canyon concrete.

At the demolition kickoff, the president of the nonprofit American Rivers announced (to the governor, U.S. senators, and, sure, actor Tom Skerritt), “Twenty-five years ago, the idea of removing this dam or any dam was really seen as a crazy idea by a bunch of wild-eyed environmental extremists. Now it is a mainstream idea.”

Environmentalism is indeed mainstream. The same year, and with much less fanfare, Condit Dam on the White Salmon River was also dismantled. And activists are no longer wild eyed; they’re businessmen. The year 2011 also saw the groundbreaking for Capitol Hill’s energy-neutral Bullitt Center—opened in 2013—where the toilets flush with biodegradable foam.

Four years after the Elwha Dam removal began, Shell oil rigs arrived in Seattle waters and were met not by a single hippie vandal in the dead of night but by 200 kayaktivists who organized safety briefings before amassing a protest flotilla. Green became law in Seattle with mandatory composting and plastic bag prohibition. Monuments aren’t necessarily permanent; the viaduct will come down whether there’s a tunnel to replace it or not.

Progress may never look the same again.

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