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Originally published Monday, May 6, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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‘Elwha: A River Reborn’: the resurrection of a river

In “Elwha: A River Reborn,” Lynda V. Mapes and Steve Ringman document the process of restoring 70 miles of pristine salmon spawning habitat by removing dams on the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River. They appear Wednesday, May 8, at Seattle’s Mountaineers program center.

Special to The Seattle Times

Book Event

‘Elwha: A River Reborn’

Lynda V. Mapes and Steve Ringman will appear at the book launch of “Elwha: A River Reborn” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Mountaineers’ Seattle program center, 7700 Sand Point Way, Seattle. The event is free; register for tickets at

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Book review

‘Elwha: A River Reborn’

by Lynda V. Mapes, photographs by Steve Ringman

Mountaineers Books/The Seattle Times, 176 pp., $29.95

On Sept. 17, 2011, an excavator with a gold-painted bucket took the first bite out of the Elwha Dam. That marked the beginning of the largest dam removal in the world and an ambitious ecological restoration effort that will return salmon to Olympic National Park’s largest river system.

Beyond the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams lie 70 miles of pristine spawning habitat protected by the park, habitat blocked to salmon for a century. The Elwha River was legendary for its once-prodigious runs of all five species of Pacific salmon. By 2011 less than one percent remained.

The Elwha dams, built in 1913 and 1927, brought power and a degree of prosperity to the pioneering settlement of Port Angeles. But the Lower Elwha Klallam people, area fishermen, and a cherished national park bore the cost.

A new book by an award-winning writer and photographer team takes readers into the blue-green depths of the Elwha River’s story and nets an epic tale of natural and cultural renewal. In “Elwha: A River Reborn,” Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes and photographer Steve Ringman have done an exceptional job weaving together the many varied and often conflicting threads of the Elwha story. The pair spent more than two years accompanying scientists into the damp Olympic wilderness, conducting interviews and plumbing archives. Their reporting brings the Elwha’s long-awaited restoration brilliantly to life.

Drawing on excerpts from period newspapers, Mapes captures the tenor of the pioneering boom years, when developers like dam-builder Thomas Aldwell were able to shirk laws requiring fish passages on dams.

Mapes also sat with elders of the Elwha Klallam Tribe, including the late Adeline Smith, who as a child watched crowds of salmon splash past her parents’ farm house. “You couldn’t cross a stream without stepping on a fish,”she recalled. Smith and others recount how the Elwha people had no voice to protest when the dams were built. Indian people did not receive U.S. citizenship until 1924; the Elwha Tribe had no reservation until 1968.

But when the local pulp and paper mill applied to renew its license for the upper dam, the tribe led the effort to correct a decades-long injustice. In 1986 the tribe petitioned the federal licensing agency to remove both dams and restore historic salmon runs. The tribe was joined by four environmental organizations led by Rick Rutz, a scrappy scientist-activist who envisioned Elwha dam removal as a national issue.

“Not only do you not have to be an attorney,” Rutz told Mapes, “you don’t have to be a credentialed agency biologist to know a thing or two about this sort of thing, even when they tell you [you] are wrong.”

The Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration Act passed in 1992, but victory was short-lived. Local politics ensued. It would be nearly two decades before the dams were taken out — at a cost of $325 million.

“Why it took so long — and how a radical idea backed by a motley crew of Indians, tree huggers, and bird-watchers became a mainstream cause for the industrial establishment of Port Angeles — is one of the great stories of the Elwha,” Mapes writes.

It is a great story, well told and beautifully illustrated in fluid prose and striking images. As salmon swim past the former site of the lower dam, “Elwha: A River Reborn” celebrates a local environmental success story with planetary significance.

Tim McNulty is the author of “Olympic National Park: A Natural History.”

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