WCU geosciences professor leads Elwha tribal education project

Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant-funded project led by a Western Carolina University professor, 25 young people from Washington’s Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe are seeing firsthand how the nation’s largest dam removal project will impact a river system with deep spiritual and cultural significance to the tribe.

The weeklong geosciences education project, which features educational activities organized by a partnership including Olympic Park Institute, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Olympic National Park and Western Carolina University, is designed to help interest young members of the tribe in pursing scientific careers, said Rob Young, associate professor of geosciences at WCU.

“The project is unique in that the kids are being taught science and culture side by side. We hope this makes the science more interesting and more relevant,” said Young, a coastal geology specialist. “We are combining stories that are important to the tribe with scientific activities at many sites along the river. We hope to convince tribal young people that they can be scientists, and that science has something relevant to offer them and their community.”

Young and his partners say that many tribes across the United States, including the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, are using environmental restoration projects to help reclaim their altered cultural heritage. The construction of the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha more than 70 years ago has choked off salmon runs for most of the past century and dramatically changed what was once a sandy coastal environment. The flooding of the Elwha River Valley altered many sites considered sacred by tribal members.

“We believe that emphasizing the importance of the geosciences for environmental restoration and cultural revitalization, and that enabling Native American kids to carry out restoration-based geoscience research projects in an area of immense cultural importance to those kids will ultimately increase the overall representation of Native Americans in geoscience careers and will raise the profile of the geosciences within Native American communities,” said Young.

Through the $90,000 NSF project, the students are involved with hands-on geoscience education activities that are being integrated into traditional, culturally based summer activities currently sponsored by the tribe. To help ensure the participation of the tribe’s young people in the project, many tribal leaders are donating their time to the effort, including tribal elders, educators and employees, members of the tribal council, and concerned citizens.

Educators with the Olympic Park Institute, the Elwha Tribe, Olympic National Park and other partners have worked “extremely hard” on organizing the week’s educational activities, Young said. “The National Science Foundation has been very impressed with the level of cooperative planning among all partners,” he said. “I believe that this project will serve as a model for other science education projects targeting tribal young people. I am particularly impressed with how the tribe has bent over backwards to make this project happen for their kids.”

Young has been involved in the Elwha Dam removal project since 2004, helping design a long-term plan to monitor the impact of the removal of the dams on the quality of water in the river. Although the project is expected to eventually result in enhanced water quality, removal of the dams will release several million cubic yards of sediment into the Elwha, initially hurting water quality. Young is using the precedent-setting coastal restoration project as a learning opportunity for his geosciences students at WCU.

Rob Young (left) guides young members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in a geosciences activity along the site of the nation's largest dam removal project.

Rob Young (left) guides young members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in a geosciences activity along the site of the nation’s largest dam removal project.