Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog

One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

October 18, 2011 at 7:00 AM

It took many people to bring down Condit Dam

Posted by Lynda V. Mapes

Back in 1993, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission came to Washington for a field hearing on Condit Dam, this was how the newscasters played it: would the dam ever come down? Not very likely, they decided. Then they played a bit of footage from the public hearing, including a demonstration by a bunch of local school kids, carrying salmon on sticks in front of the FERC commissioners. The kids were enacting a breach of the dam, running through a paper dam and racing the freed fish through the audience.

Capturing the moment on film was Daniel Dancer, a Mosier, Ore., performance artist who organized the kids' demonstration, in an effort to enlist art in the fight to free the White Salmon.

Here's a film clip from the hearing, worth watching to remember how remote possibilities can seem long before they are realized.

It's a reminder, too, of the many faces of restoration. Not just the work of scientists and public officials, restoration efforts begin and reside in local communities. As on the Elwha River, where local activists like Dick Goin were among the visionaries to tell officials salmon in the Elwha were worth fighting for, on the White Salmon it was kids, artists and citizens who yelled that demolition, not re-licensing, was the answer that made sense on the White Salmon.

public hearing.JPG

Photo: A salmon pageant stirs up the doldrums of a public hearing on the White Salmon River. Daniel Dancer

The salmon pageants were Dancer's secret weapon. What he understood, he said, was that children and art can be fresh voices and approaches in jaded debates and stale hearing rooms. "It's kind of a curve ball approach," he said, "It gets people to look in another direction when they otherwise wouldn't, and I am always trying to get kids to realize how powerful their voices are. When kids stand up and say something in a room full of adults, they listen."

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Kids "breach" the Condit Dam in a salmon pageant, pulling a blue silk White Salmon River free at last. Daniel Dancer photo

"I can't believe I am living long enough to see it actually happen," said Phyllis Clausen, 87, of Vancouver, Wash., who with other citizen activists has fought for restoration of the White Salmon as a free flowing river since joining the "Friends of the White Salmon":, a non-profit citizens' conservation group, in 1976. "We kept working on things for the river, and it just became our obsession," she said.

What she centers on as she talks about the long campaign that will be rewarded with a boom on Oct. 26, when the dam is breached, was the power of persistence. It wasn't any one letter or hearing or action that got the job done, she said, but just staying with it, even when it seemed hopeless.


Phyllis Clausen and Friends of the White Salmon fought for restoration and dam removal on the White Salmon for decades, even when it seemed hopeless. Photo courtesy, Phyllis Clausen

"Situations change over many years, and what seemed impossible at early times might become possible, just because situations surrounding the issue change. That occurs slowly, but if you are tuned in to take advantage of those moments, like the moment when the dam came up for re-licensing, then you may be able to accomplish something," Clausen said.

"It took a number of people, and it certainly wasn't just me. I felt, it was that this river was so important to so many people, I think it for a lot of us, it's a home, really, and it has the same beauty to us. I could go down and sit there on a cliff side with my feet dangling and eat a picnic lunch and watch dippers down in the water and birds flying all around there, and I would remember that, long after I left."

But if restoration has many faces, perhaps the most striking is that of the fish themselves. Biologists hand-carried 679 tule fall chinook, including 299 females, above the dam last month so they could spawn. The fish got right to work on the White Salmon above the dam, where they had not been in a century, and dug their redds. Their progeny will be the first to re-colonize the river once it is opened again later this month.

In a reporting trip to the river last week, we saw the spawned out carcasses of those pioneer fish, on textbook perfect gravel bars that awaited them above the dam. One female was still finning in the river, exhausted, guarding her redd. Her tail was worn white, down to the bones, where she had been beating the gravel into shape for her nest.

The carcasses were catching fall leaves, and the river ran clean and cold over the open mouths of the fish, their teeth long and sharp.

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A tule fall chinook carcass on the White Salmon river feeds the ecosystem. Lynda Mapes photo

Already, the eagles, osprey and bears had noticed. Neighbors along this stretch of river reported seeing the raptors where they never had before, and even the scat of a bear.

Standing in the shallows, watching the river run over and through these big fish, 25 pound sacks of fertilizer fresh from the sea that will feed this ecosystem, it was easy to imagine that these fish will jump-start a whole suite of life, from insects in the gravel to birds feeding on the bugs, and the carcasses themselves.

For more on dam removal on the Condit, see my story in the Seattle Times, and watch the paper in the coming days for a story that puts the Condit and Elwha dam removal projects in context.

So, we tear down a clean energy source to bring back a salmon run which will probably be killed off by global warming...  Posted on October 18, 2011 at 6:03 PM by marsyas. Jump to comment
A great story with a great ending (in sight). Congrats to those citizens who fought for salmon restoration and to D.Dancer for the great video....  Posted on October 18, 2011 at 3:56 PM by lordoflys. Jump to comment
Soon the fish will be in the trees!  Posted on October 18, 2011 at 12:34 PM by Bike2Work. Jump to comment

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