Purchase Endgame
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Excerpt from Endgame

Elwha River (p. 590)

From chapter "Dams, Part"

I want to talk about the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Prior to its damming, all five North American species of Pacific salmon ran the river, as well as sea-run cutthroat trout, steelhead, and char. Some of the salmon weighed more than a hundred pounds, the largest salmon ever seen by humans.The lives of the Clallam Indians (as well as many tribes of nonhumans) were centered around the 400,000 salmon who came up the river each year.

Now, about 3,000 fish come up the river annually. The reason? Dams.

The first dam on the Elwha was built by Thomas Aldwell, a Canadian backed by investors from Chicago. Aldwell summed up his relationship to the land in language that well manifests this culture’s collective desires: “There is something about belonging to a place. You want to control more and more of it, directly or indirectly . . . land was something one could work with, change, develop.”

The dam was illegal. In its very first session, many years earlier, the Washington State Legislature had passed laws prohibiting anyone from blocking fish passage up any river or stream. As David R. Montgomery dryly notes in his extraordinary King of Fish, “Though the intent of such laws seems clear, they were generally ignored or circumvented in short order.”

The city of Seattle, for example, dammed the Cedar River in 1901, and “the dam stood in unchallenged violation of state law for over a century.”

The stated purpose of the Elwha dam was to produce hydroelectricity. Never mind that there were no markets, because what was at stake here was not mere electric power, but heaven on earth. As one article promoting hydroelectricity put it: “Should any considerable portion of that enormous power ultimately be developed and utilized, who will attempt to foretell the innumerable benefits which will accrue therefrom to mankind? It would completely revolutionize economical industrial conditions. The cost of living would be greatly reduced. Not only the necessaries but the luxuries of life would be easily within the reach of the poor as well as of the rich. With the many electrical appliances already invented for the use, convenience, and benefit of mankind, and with the inventions an inventive age will produce for the betterment of humanity, Bellamy’s ideal commonwealth may not be as far in the future as the pessimist might imagine.”

I suspect however, the real reason for the dam’s construction was that stated by Aldwell. If what you want is to control more and more land, what you’ll do is attempt to control more and more land.

Dam construction began in 1910. By 1911, a Clallam county game warden wrote to the State Fisheries Commissioner, “I have personally searched the Elwha River & Tributarys [sic], above the dam, & have been unable to find a single salmon. I have visited the Dam several times lately, was out there yesterday and there appears to be thousands of salmon at the foot of the Dam, where they are jumping continually trying to get up the flume. I have watched them very close, and I’m satisfied now, that they cannot get above the dam.”

I’m not sure why the game warden needed to watch them so close before he could be satisfied. No matter how strong or determined the salmon were, they weren’t going to clear the dam: it’s more than a hundred feet tall.

Fisheries personnel were assured by on-site engineers that a fishway would be built. It should come as no surprise to any of us that the engineers lied.

The response by the state was of course not to demand the illegal structure be torn down—or even that it not be fixed after it failed in heavy rains in 1912.Remember, the property of those higher on the hierarchy is always worth more than the lives of those below. Their solution was to demand that a fish elevator be built that would trap fish at the base of the dam then carry them to the top and release them in the reservoir.

This absurd solution was ignored. A new governor came in, and with him a new fisheries commissioner, Leslie Darwin. Darwin had all the right rhetoric, saying, for example, “It seems to me to be a crime against mankind—against those who are here and the generations yet to follow—to let the great salmon runs of the State of Washington be destroyed at the selfish behest of a few individuals who, in order to enrich themselves, would impoverish the state and destroy a food supply of the people. Unfortunately, every pressure is exerted in behalf of those selfishly interested. These selfish interests have gone to almost unbelievable extent in certain instances in order to silence any opposition in their course, and have slandered and vilified those who opposed their plans and methods. These persons do not want the people of the state to know the truth of the matter, believing that if they do they will act to protect and conserve. It is my belief that had the people understood the situation, they would have acted long ere this, and would have prevented the practical destruction of some of our greatest salmon runs.”

So he took down the dam, right? Well, no. He did what he decried, and went “to an almost unbelievable extent” to exert pressure “in behalf of those selfishly interested.”

As historian Jeff Crane notes, “Whereas Darwin had elsewhere willingly used dynamite to remove small earthen dams in an effort to enforce the law and restore salmon runs, he was more flexible with such a heavily capitalized project as the Elwha Dam; he struck a deal with a company that had been in violation of the law for five years, years during which the salmon runs were dealt serious harm.”

He took advantage of a seeming loophole in the law. It was generally illegal to obstruct rivers, but one could, it seems, block rivers to capture fish to kill and take their eggs for use in fish hatcheries. Here’s how Darwin’s scheme worked, once again according to Crane: “Darwin proposed a clever, pragmatic, and illegal plan. He suggested that by selecting a hatchery site at the base of the dam and making the dam the obstruction for the purpose of collecting eggs for the hatchery, it would be possible to obviate strict enforcement of the fish passage-way law . . .”

In other words, the dam was no longer to be considered a dam, but instead an obstruction to stop fish from moving upstream so they could be captured by the operators of the hatchery, who just happened to be the operators of the dam, which just happened to produce hydroelectricity for sale. It’s still illegal, but that didn’t seem to bother the bureaucrats. It still destroyed the salmon and other fish, but that didn’t seem to bother them, either.

Darwin was so pleased with his idea that he later convinced the state legislature to change the law to allow hatcheries in lieu of fishways. Never mind, once again, that the hatcheries not only didn’t help wild salmon but harmed them.

The whole system is based on lies. So long as someone tells us comforting lies,

we will continue to allow them to control more and more of the land and air and water and our genetic materials and everything on the planet.

The lie having completed its purpose, the dam having been built, all pretense of operating a hatchery was dropped in 1922.

Oh, and all that electricity that was supposed to fuel utopia? The dam produced just enough to run a sawmill. The sawmill was used, of course, to deforest the region.


It’s now 2004. For more than seventy years two illegal dams have stood on the Elwha. There is the Elwha Dam and the more than 200-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam (built 1927). For more than seventy years these dams—illegal dams—have killed salmon, shad, steelhead, cutthroat, and other fish.

After decades of outrage and pressure from the Lower Elwha Klallum Tribe (which traces its creation to the Elwha River) and others, in 1992 Congress passed and the President signed a bill authorizing removal of the dams. The dams—illegal dams—were to be purchased from the Virginia-based transnational paper conglomerate James River Corporation (212 pulp and paper facilities in eleven countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Scotland, France, Italy, Finland, and Turkey). Yet the illegal dams continue to stand because no money was allotted to purchase them.

A major sticking point was that the dams—illegal dams—still provided electricity that was used by the sawmill that was still used to deforest the region. The sawmill is owned by the Japanese-based transnational paper conglomerate Daishowa,infamous for clearcutting the homeland of the Lubicon Cree in Canada.

So, salmon would continue to suffer so that two distant transnational corporations could continue to profit from these structures that had been illegal for more than seventy years. And if this problem were to be solved, American taxpayers would have to pay to purchase these illegal and destructive structures from these transnational corporations.

This is how the system works. This is one reason the planet is being killed.

The dams were finally purchased in 2000.

Demolition was supposed to begin in 2004, but was more recently pushed back

to 2007. Presuming deconstruction does begin then, here’s how it’s supposed to work. The larger Glines Canyon Dam should be pretty simple, as engineers cut successive Vs in the concrete, each time slowly lowering the water, until the river is free. Such a straightforward approach won’t, unfortunately, work on the Elwha Dam, because of the way it was patched after failing. Instead engineers will divert the river around the dam, drain the lake (Lake Aldwell), and demolish the dam.

Once the dams are gone it will only take months, according to Brian Winter, former fisheries biologist with the Tribe and now working on dam demolition for the National Park Service, before remnant salmon come home, and begin once again to explore the full length of the Elwha.