Planting the void

Matt Albright Native Plant Center in Sequim where thousands of native plants are tended and eventually transplanted in the Elwha valley.

Meg, DH and I ditched work on Friday, June 8, to lend a hand on the Elwha Revegetation Project. We were among the twelve volunteers who helped repot plants slated to cover the barren, grey landscape of two emptied lakes in the Elwha Valley.

Olympic National Park worker Jill Zarzeczny shows how to repot.

Our volunteer work is part of a strategy ultimately aimed at creating viable salmon and steelhead habitat, and such habitat restoration is the driving force behind the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Dam breaching, initiated in fall 2011 and originally projected to take as long as five years, will be completed next year.

Green looks better than grey, but revegetation serves more than an aesthetic function. The twinberry, scouler’s willow and cottonwood starts we potted will serve the critical function of controlling erosion, moderating stream temperatures and delivering nutrients to the watershed, all needed to support anadramous fish.

Meg Hudson gets serious with black cottonwood.

Jill Zarzeczny, a Park employee who heads up the volunteer effort, explained how all the plants were grown from seeds or cuttings hand-collected from the Elwha valley. She also educated us on some of the project’s methodology. Native plants selected for the project must be able to propagate in some of the most difficult conditions: a substrate low in oxygen and nutrients, intense sun and wind exposure, and vulnerability to deer and elk. Another important facet of this multi-pronged strategy is the control of non-native invasive species such as reed canarygrass and giant knotweed.

In our four-hour shift from 10am to 2pm, we replanted 1,000 plants, which will mature in a greenhouse until they are hardy enough to survive backpack-transport to the Elwha this winter. While our production metrics seemed impressive, it’s just a tiny fraction of the work. The goal is to revegetate 800 acres of naked riverscape left by the two emptied basins, Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills, with 400,000 native plants. You can count the paid staff charged with this monumental task on one hand.

After we completed the last flats of black cottonwood, swept the planting tables and put away our supplies, we left the Matt Albright Native Plant Center in Sequim and drove towards Port Angeles to view the lower dam site. A brief, quarter-mile walk from the parking lot brought us to a decent viewing platform. We peered out to the free-stone river flowing through a terrace of sediment and the stump-lined slopes of Lake Aldwell.

Site of lower Elwha Dam.

It was cool, but we wanted to see more of the Elwha. Since the weather was still decent, we drove to Whiskey Bend Road to the trailhead and hiked to Goblins Gate where the Elwha hangs a sharp right into a narrow gorge and enters Rica Canyon. We didn’t spot any elk, but we saw two young bucks and heard a Great-Horned Owl.

DH at Goblins Gate in Rica Canyon.

If you plan to make the trek, the lower dam lies outside the National Park boundaries so you can take your dog. However, the upper dam and all trails up the Elwha valley from Whiskey Bend lie within the boundary. Those of you really interested in the science–sediment pH tables, bathymetric mapping and so forth–can geek out by downloading the 150-page PFD, Revegetation and Restoration Plan for Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell–from the Olympic National Park website.

If you’re interested in volunteering, contact  Jill Zarzeczny:
Elwha Revegetation Project
Olympic National Park
Tel: 360.565.3047


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