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Being Frank

I am excited that those two Elwha River dams will begin to come down next year, and you should be excited too. It’s been a long time coming. After more than a century, the Elwha River will run free again and provide a good home for salmon.

Built without fish ladders about a century ago, the two dams cut salmon off from nearly 100 miles of excellent habitat. Today a lot of that habitat is protected in Olympic National Park, and that’s a good thing for the future of the river, the salmon and all of us.

The idea that those dams are really, truly coming down was driven home for me at the recent groundbreaking ceremony for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s new salmon hatchery. The tribe’s old hatchery has to be replaced because it sits in what will be the Elwha River’s new floodplain once the dams come down.

After more than a century, the Elwha River will run free again and provide a good home for salmon.

The new hatchery will be built during the next 18 months and will help support salmon and steelhead recovery efforts on the river. The tribe has a steelhead broodstock program that will make sure native Elwha River steelhead aren’t wiped out by the dam removal.

Another fish I hope we haven’t lost is the 100-pound chinook the Elwha River used to produce before the dams were built. Imagine that, 100-pound salmon!

Of course, building a new hatchery alone won’t bring the salmon back. There’s a lot of work to be done.

The tribe has been working hard to get the river valley ready for the increased water flow and sediment that are coming. They’ve been putting in engineered logjams and removing dikes to slow down the river. Undersized culverts are being removed and replaced with larger culverts or bridges. It’s a long list.

We’re happy for the tribe and its federal and state partners that President Barack Obama’s stimulus funding could speed up the date for tearing down the dams. It can’t happen soon enough.

Removal of the Elwha dams is the dream of a lifetime come true. None of us is here very long. We’re just kind of passing through, and what we do with our time is important. I can remember way back when the tribe first started talking about taking out the dams. A lot of people told them it couldn’t be done. That was a lot of years ago, but the Elwha people never gave up. They stayed the course and they are putting this watershed back together.

That’s the kind of strength and courage we need to tackle some other issues that seem impossible to solve, such as stormwater runoff, shoreline development and fish-blocking culverts. If we can tear down those Elwha dams we can sure as hell tackle those problems.

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.