Rob Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, (PSDS) was among the special guests invited took part in a September ceremony in the Pacific Northwest that marked the official beginning of the nation’s largest dam removal project.
The event, which featured a mix of scientists, celebrities, and politicians, also marked the start of the final phase of a multiyear effort by Young and other scientists from PSDS who have conducted a wide variety of research on the coastal impact of two large hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River in the state of Washington.
Construction of the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River more than 70 years ago choked off salmon runs and dramatically changed what was once a sandy coastal environment, said Young. It also had a major effect on the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, flooding sacred grounds and changing their way of life, he said.
With funding from two National Science Foundation grants totaling $1.7 million, Young and his colleagues have worked to use the removal of the dams to help increase the number of Native American youth interested in careers in geosciences and environmental restoration.
“What we have been doing with our partners at the Olympic Park Institute and tribal elders is to try to show middle school and high school students in the tribe that science matters to them,” Young said. “We are teaching science and culture sideby- side and showing that the science that goes along with the restoration of the Elwha River to its natural state is culturally relevant to them and the members of their tribe.”
Those efforts appear to be paying off. Since the project began, high school graduation rates for the tribe’s young people have increased dramatically, said Tracey Hosselkus, tribal education coordinator.
“The Geoscience Education Program run by Western Carolina University and local partners here in Port Angeles has made a big difference in our ability to provide meaningful cultural education and an appreciation for the sciences,” Hosselkus said. “With the help of this program, our graduation rates have never been higher.”
Inspired by that success, Young and his wife, Leigh Anne Young, recently established a scholarship fund to send these new high school graduates on to college – the Bea Charles Scholarship in Environmental Restoration. The scholarship is named for Bea Charles, an elder of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe who fought for the restoration of the native environment and native culture within her community. Charles died in April 2009 at the age of 90.
“The hope is that we can remove cost as an impediment to a young person’s decision to attend college,” said Young. “It has been our privilege over the last eight years to work with many young people and educators within the Lower Elwha community. It also was our great privilege to share time with, and learn from the wisdom of, Bea Charles. We hope that this scholarship will help encourage the tribe’s young people to pursue environmental science as a means of healing and uplifting the community.”
In addition to exposing Native American youngsters to geosciences, the NSF funding to PSDS also has enabled numerous WCU undergraduate and graduate students in geology and environmental science to travel to Washington to conduct fieldwork and get first-hand experience at the scene of a precedent-setting coastal restoration project. WCU students will continue to monitor changes to the Elwha River environment as the dams come down over the next two years.
During the Saturday, Sept. 17, event in Port Angeles, Wash., the ceremonial first chunks of concrete were removed from the Glines Canyon Dam. In addition to Young, special guests included PSDS supporter Yvon Chouinard, the outdoor recreation icon who founded the Patagonia clothing company; Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire; U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell; U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar; former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey; and actor Tom Skerritt, who is on the board of American Rivers.
Prior to the dam removal ceremony, Young gave a keynote address at the Elwha Science Symposium. In his talk, titled “The Elwha River Restoration Project as a Signature Example of What Environmental Restoration Should Be,” he described how the dam removal project meets the Society for Ecological Restoration International definition of environmental or ecological restoration – one that returns the ecosystem to its historical trajectory; re-establishes a characteristic assemblage of species found in the native ecosystem; and is sustainable.