NatureBridge is an environmental education organization that brings youth to experiential learning programs in nature. The Elwha Dam Restoration Project in Olympic National Park is one of their sites that they send students to learn about the damage dams can do to river and stream habitats. The Elwha is being restored, in part, by removing the dam. When the dam removal is complete and restoration is implemented successfully it is hoped that several hundred thousand adult salmon will once again use the river for their spawning grounds. (Currently that number is just several thousand). What follows is an interview with NatureBridge about their educational program on the Elwha.
Q: What ages are the students who learn in the natural setting?
A: NatureBridge provides educational opportunities in the Elwha watershed, primarily for middle and high school students and their teachers. Over 700 students each year participate in our Elwha focused programs. That number will likely increase over the next few years.
Q: What do they learn there?
A: Students participate in monitoring an impressive river ecosystem prior to the removal of the two Elwha River dams. Upon removal of the dams, the resulting watershed restoration project will be the largest in human history. Students visit and collect data at various monitoring sites in the Elwha River watershed; with guidance from research partners, we have selected methods of study that are designed for students and linked to anticipated change in the ecosystem.
Field experiences in the watershed are supplemented by program time that focuses on the necessary procedures and skills needed to conduct an inquiry-based learning project. Equipped with the techniques and skills gained through our programs, students may design and conduct their own project, investigating the interconnections between forest, rivers, or lakes in this real-world ecological experiment and exploring this inspiring and hopeful story of stewardship.
Students also apply interdisciplinary skills, learning about the cultural and natural history of the river while doing science. Overall, exposure to such an historic event and important research is grounds for sparking student engagement in the process of science and becoming a responsible and informed citizen.
Q: Are there other activities you offer in the Olympic National Park?
A: NatureBridge also offers learning experiences in the Elwha watershed for families and teachers. For additional information, please visit our website to see examples of student science projects, resources for teachers, and links to additional background information.
Q: How successful is the program?
“This works, the quality of work students do in class increases, they remember specific things, and my students who have this experience are very likely to study environmental science in college,” said Matt Hinckley, Nathan Hale High School, Seattle, WA. (Source: NatureBridge)
Q: What is planned for the long-term to keep teaching students using the same habitat?
A: At this point, staff at Olympic National Park do not know what the construction company will do with the cement that makes up the dam. However, it is the responsibility of the construction company to take care of this portion of the project.
Q: What impact does dam removal have on the stream or river, and the surrounding landscape?
A: The two most significant impacts that the dams have had on the ecosystem are: loss of salmon habitat and sediment starvation. Because the dams were constructed without fish passage approximately 70 miles of salmon habitat were lost when the dams were built. Thus, fish populations are a fraction of what they once were. Second, the dams have been blocking the normal flow of sediment (cobbles, sand, silt) for the same time period. That sediment is a key ingredient to a functioning ecosystem for all types of fauna.
Image Credit: Jeff taylor