NY Times Opinionator: Biological Boomerang
July 26, 2012, 10:19 pm
By TIMOTHY EGAN
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. - You come to the big green heart of the American rain forest because you want to be far, far away from the dead-eyed young man with dyed red hair and the thumping chatter about what's wrong with a country in which 16,000 lives are taken every year in violent homicide.
Each murder is inexplicable in its own way, so you look for something restorative and reliable in a park holding trees that were living when Thomas Jefferson puttered around Monticello.
It doesn't take long to find a miracle in the newly released Elwha River, focus of the largest dam removal project in American history - the Berlin Wall of environmental restoration. When wrecking crews started whacking away at the Elwha Dam last September, it was projected to take two, or even three years to bring it down.
By late spring the 108-foot-tall dam was completely gone, and the river looks frisky in its gravitational search for old channels. Another dam, twice the height of the Elwha and eight miles upriver, is also coming down. With these two concrete barriers gone, about 70 miles of some of the cleanest, coldest water on the planet will tumble through the park at the edge of the continent.
It defies experience-hardened cynicism whenever any big public works project is under budget and ahead of schedule. But the Elwha has served up something even better: life itself, in the form of ocean-going fish answering to the imperatives of love and death. Not long ago, scientists were stunned to find wild steelhead trout scouting habitat well past the site where the Elwha Dam had stood for nearly a century. They didn't expect fish to return this soon.
This biological boomerang is a tribute to stubborn DNA memory, and it is a precursor for what the wild Elwha will be in the not-so-distant future. Beyond that, the restoration of the Elwha, as in the revival of the much-abused southern end of the Bronx River at the other end of the country, is proof that American ingenuity is alive and well and hard at work on with the tricky task of healing parts of the natural world that we've trashed.
Before two dams were stapled to the Elwha, upwards of 400,000 fish - all five native species of Pacific salmon, and steelhead trout (a close cousin) - thronged up and down this pretty river. Their watery crib was where they were born, reared and then, after a life in the ocean, a place to spawn and die.
The dams choked off one of the greatest salmon bounties in the United States. They were built to service a pulp mill, and once the mill outlived its purpose, the Indians of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe began to dream of big Chinook, some up to 80 pounds, coming back to a river wild once again - a ghost dance, in its way. After an initial act of Congress authorized dam removal in 1992, it took two decades of persistence by the tribe, the National Park Service and lovers of wild land and feisty fish to guide the $325 million project through much turbulence.
There were obstacles, of course, the usual Republicans who have abandoned the founding conservation principles of Teddy Roosevelt, who wore a G.O.P. uniform in the days when the party often stood for visionary common sense. But when even Chamber of Commerce types from nearby Port Angeles joined the Indians and the tree-huggers in seeing a bonanza in the audacity of restoring a wild river, most of the obstructionists retreated.
But as to the question of what taxpayers in Cleveland or Amarillo are getting out of a project of this size in the nation's far corner: consider what else we subsidize in the food chain. The government has paid out $277 billion in farm subsidies since 1995 - an obscene amount for a runaway program that was started to help Dust Bowl farmers but now is just another corporate entitlement protected by K Street influence peddlers. Tobacco growers, alone, have received $1.3 billion in that time.
The investment here will not only return a river to its natural state, but lays the foundation for a wild salmon fishery like no other in the 48 states. Imagine having a place, two hours and change from the 3 million people of the Seattle metro area, that looks like Alaska's Kenai Peninsula - and has the fish to bring in visitors to expand what is already a thriving tourist industry.
Always with the salmon, a New York friend of mine likes to say about us Far Westerners. Ah, but the rest of world, tired of mushy, food-coloring-injected Atlantic salmon raised in little pens, has caught up with our obsession.
Flying as V.I.P.'s in the frozen hold of a cargo jet from Cordova, Alaska, the first of the Copper River salmon arrived in the lower 48 states two months ago. They were carried over a red carpet in Seattle and off to markets selling the celebrity salmon for upward of $32 a pound.
But you don't come here to a park named for the gods to dwell on markets and politicians. You come here to walk next to the wild Elwha, dripping moss and perpetual green overhanging the path, the white noise of river water hurrying over polished stone - enough, for an afternoon, to forget about the trauma outside this valley.