Throughout the Pacific Northwest there is a growing trend for ecological restoration projects. From tree planting to riverbed reconstruction, Whatcom County, Washington State and the Pacific Northwest are helping to lead the charge in a movement to restore environments to their historic and natural state.

In addition to their positive environmental impact, many of these projects are now being taking advantage of as an educational tool as well. For Western’s Ecology and Economics of Salmon Recovery class, a class that is co-taught by economics professor Hart Hodges and biology professor David Hooper, a recent weekend-long field trip to the Elwha Dam removal project site on the Olympic Peninsula helped to illustrate what exactly is involved in such mass restoration projects.

After a long day of traveling to Port Angeles, a Forest Service employee greeted the class and gave a brief presentation about the Elwha Dam removal project. Later the class met up with Nature Bridge, a non-profit environmental education center that works with national parks across the country, for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

The next morning the class woke up early to start a day of hands-on learning. First they experimented with a scaled model of the Elwha dams to see what would happen theoretically if the dams were to be removed, and then they traveled to the actual sites.

"In our visit we looked at the two dams they are taking out: the lower Elwha Dam and the upper Glines Canyon Dam. We started out at the upper dam and looked at the sediment that was deposited above it," said Drew Swisherm, a sophomore in the class. "They estimated that the sediment that is going to be washed out of the Elwha River should fill up the CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks play, eight times over."

"The site here is this great teaching tool that we can use to have students look at stewardship," said Chris Morgan, a field science educator at Nature Bridge that led the field trip.

The Elwha Dam removal is the tallest dam deconstruction project that has happened anywhere on the planet, and the Elwha River is known to have been one of the most pristine watersheds in the Olympic National Park. Eighty percent of the Elwha River watershed lies within the park and there are rumors of Chinook salmon that weighed upwards of 100 pounds spawning upstream of the dams.

"It’s a wonderful case-study on cost benefit analysis; why was a dam that was viewed as so profitable and useful that was managed for the better part of 100 years decided to be torn down?" said Hart. "This is a fairly grand experiment and what we’ll learn from taking this down has value all by itself."

"Nothing has been done of this scale before, so it’s pretty exciting to have students out here and see first hand all the changes that are happening," said Morgan. "What happens here is going to be the model that future dam deconstructions are base off of. This is the first one of its type, so it’s pretty exciting to know that it’s setting the stage for others to come."

Morgan remarked that Nature Bridge doesn’t really have a standard program and that they are able to adhere to the specific needs of various classes.

"Our goal is really to work with students and foster a sense of connection to the natural world and foster sustainable action to protect it. That’s kind of the core of our program," he said.

Hodges was amazed by the student’s performance. "I was quite struck by how well the students worked together and got along," he recalled. "They were helping each other out and staying interested."

Of all the activities Swisher has participated in at Western, this field trip stands out as his favorite.

"It was hands down the coolest trip that I’ve been on through the school," he said. "It’s pretty inspiring to see something like this, in hopes of it becoming some sort of precedent to set for other rivers around the world."

The class will continue to evaluate the Elwha dam removal project and other ecological restoration projects throughout the remainder of the year.

"We have a lot of fun teaching the class," said Hodges. "The students tell us it’s a lot of fun to have our back and forth lectures, because they get to see how inherently interdisciplinary things are."