MU Students Witness the Liberation of a River and the Return of Life

by L. J. Frech*

On July 7th of this year, 8 students from Marylhurst University left campus for a four day exploration of Olympic National Park, recognized as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. There are over 20 plants and animals in the Olympics found nowhere else on Earth, and National Marine Sanctuaries protest 3,310 square miles of ocean life.

This field studies course was designed to gain an understanding of the largest dam removal in the world and the most extensive river restoration effort in Pacific Northwest history. The primary purpose of the dam removal is to restore anadromous stocks of Pacific Salmon and Steelhead to the Elwha River, which have been denied access to the upper 65 miles of river habitat for more than 95 years by two dams.

On the subject of the dam removal, the Washington National Parks website states, “The dams had a number of other serious impacts including sediment and silt blockage behind the dams, erosion of the river banks, and the effects on a huge portion of the park and people that previously relied on the anadromous populations for sustenance.

By the 1980s, perspectives had changed and legal challenges and policy questions arose about licensing a dam in a national park. After several years of political processes, Congress settled the issue in 1992 by passing the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act.

Today, the National Park Service is working closely with Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and many other partners to restore the Elwha River and its ecosystem.”

The Lower Elwah Klallam Tribe’s website discusses the importance of dam removal to the tribe, as well as how the Lower Elwah Klallam citizens are leading efforts in protection and restoration of the river.

The field studies class explored the historical, ecological, economic, social, and political contexts of this project. More specifically, students became familiar with the Elwha River, the life cycle and significance of anadromous fish, the lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and natural and manmade phases of river restoration. Students experienced part of a river’s evolution that will be studied for generations. They also gained an understanding of true wilderness and national park management.

On August 21st, 6 weeks after their return to Marylhurst, the students gave presentations of their individual research. Topics included: Re-Wilding the Elwha River, Water Conservation in the Olympic National Park, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and How Trees Adapt from Temperate Forests to Coastal and Subalpine Ecosystems.

Of the experience as a whole, students expressed amazement and deep appreciation for a wilderness as vast, diverse, and wild as this incredible place in our very own backyard. The Olympic coast, forests, and mountains are ecosystems rife with gifts, with much to teach us. They are an endowment for all of life, and worthy of every possible protection.



Field trips can be life changing. On our overnight trips, students get time for solitude and reflection through journaling. We practice safe and ethical outdoor education, and use the principles of Leave No Trace. No camping experience is necessary. Students need only to bring enthusiasm and willingness to tent camp with a positive and helpful attitude. Camping gear is scrutinized for durability, and we make sure that lack of appropriate gear doesn’t keep you from joining us. Our field trips include a wide variety of locations from the city of Portland to all corners of the Northwest and are open to all curriculums at Marylhurst. Some are day trips and others are overnight. The next field studies exploration, the California Redwoods, is this fall and nearly full. Join us! See what fun the Science Department has to offer you.

*with edits by Darwin Riviere