PAT NEAL: Happy Earth Day, Elwha

I remember the first Earth Day. We were in high school. We watched a movie about the Earth being poisoned to death. That was a relief. Back then, we thought we’d be blown up with nuclear bombs. Getting poisoned seemed like a better deal. Little did we know at the time of the corporate web of lies, marketing and profits that heralded the use of DDT, 24d, Benzine and a host of other killers into our daily lives.

Fifty years later we face a whole new crop of “chemicals of concern”, each more pernicious than the last A landmark study by NOAA scientists found an alphabet soup of chemical residues in the tissues of young salmon that swim through Puget Sound. Where 106 public wastewater treatment plants release an estimated 97,000 pounds of drugs, hormones and personal care product residues into the water every year.

Add climate change to the mix and the likelihood of our salmon surviving for another 50 years is questionable. Which is unfortunate considering the amount of effort and money spent trying to restore salmon to their habitat.

There is no more tragic example of the failure of salmon restoration than the $350 million dollar dam removal experiment on the Elwha River. We were told dam removal would herald the return of the historic run of 400,000 salmon to the Elwha. Ignoring the fact that not one other undammed stream on the Olympic Peninsula has retained even a fraction of their historic salmon runs.

As the dream of hundreds of thousands of salmon returning to the Elwha faded, we were told it was enough that the river is running free and the sediment is moving downstream. But what about the fish? While summer steelhead are returning to the Elwha above the old dam sites the Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Chum and Pink salmon are not. The Chum and Pink salmon which made up most of the historic run are still rare in the dam-free Elwha. There are no current plans to restore them other than hoping they come back on their own.

Is there something stopping the salmon from reclaiming the upper Elwha? Initially there was a plan to helicopter adult Chinook and coho above the dam sites to jump-start the runs in the pristine habitat but then it was decided to let the fish do it on their own, or not.

A rockslide below the Glines Canyon dam site blocked salmon migration even after the dam removal in 2014. These rocks were blasted out in 2015 but for some reason salmon had trouble making it much further up the river. From 2016 until 2019 adult Chinook were observed up in Geyser Valley but then in 2020, steelhead but no salmon were observed. What happened?

In 2022 Olympic National Park stream surveyors noticed a rock slide blocking the river with a waterfall that varies from 2.4 to 3 meters high just downstream of Geyser Valley in the Goblin Gates rapids. Steelhead are known to be the highest jumping salmonids at 3.3meters. Chinook can jump 2.4 meters and Coho can jump 2 meters. While steelhead have been observed above the Goblin Gates rapids no Chinook, coho or sockeye adults or juveniles have been seen since 2019.

Meanwhile, salmon spawned in the Elwha below the Goblin Gates rapids. Leading us to believe that sometime in 2019-20 a rockslide in these rapids stopped the migration of salmon to the upper Elwha.

All of which begs the question, after millions of dollars and years of sacrifice and effort are we going to continue to ignore the Elwha Salmon? Happy Earth Day Elwha.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via