Science & Research

December 2017 | Volume 23, Number 2



Abstract: Dam removal is a major contribution to rewilding of rivers, through restoring riverine ecosystems; reconnecting upstream and downstream wilderness for fish, predators, and humans; and enhancing social-ecological resilience to climate change and other stressors. We report on the 2011 removal of the Condit Dam on the Lower White Salmon River, which had been declared wild and scenic in 1986. The Condit was decommissioned largely to reintroduce anadromous fish to the river and involved collaboration among many interests. Monitoring data from 2014 and 2016 suggest that the White Salmon River receives some of the heaviest recreational use of any nonpermitted river in the United States. Use levels are increasing, potentially threatening both the outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs) for which the river was designated and rewilding benefits set in motion by dam removal. Our analysis strongly indicates the need for improved postremoval management to ensure protection of ORVs.

Rewilding can be defined as large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting ecological processes and critical wilderness character. It may involve reintroducing large predators and keystone species and providing connectivity between core wilderness areas (Foreman 2004). Rewilding may take the form of ecological restoration (Sandom et al. 2013) across fragmented protected areas and through reintroduction of predators that were previously extirpated. Rivers are crucial to the ecological functioning of core areas, particularly because of biotic and abiotic corridor connectivity, trophic order in lentic (wetlands) and lotic (rapids) systems, and biodiversity and habitat value in general. Restoring ecological functions in impaired river systems is an important subset of broader rewilding efforts.

We define river rewilding as the reestablishment of (1) instream aquatic and associated river-corridor terrestrial ecosystems; (2) upstream-downstream connectivity, especially for anadromous and other migratory fish; (3) hydro-geomorphological dynamics including fluxes of sediment, organic matter, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, and other constituents; and (4) social-ecological values from a range of ecosystem services, including cultural values of indigenous peoples and recreation. Central to river rewilding is restoration of the natural flow regime (Poff et al. 1997) that allows for free-flowing conditions with variations in temperature, oxygen, and nutrients required for the primary productivity and trophic diversity essential to the functioning of aquatic habitats. Linked to ecological processes is a range of human interactions with river systems, understood in social-ecological systems terms (Gunderson et al. 2010).

Of multiple forms of impairment, damming rivers can have especially pernicious social-ecological effects. These effects include loss of ecosystem connectivity, alterations in temperature, dissolved oxygen, and nutrient fluxes, as well as degradation or elimination of human use and recreation. Dam decommissioning and removal is gaining acceptance with increasing implementation across the United States and globally, and can result in rewilding river ecosystems, which are indispensable to ensure lasting social-ecological resilience.

Successful and illustrative examples of rewilding through decommissioning dams are unfolding on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington (East et al. 2015). There, dams pre- vented salmon from reaching their spawning grounds; disrupted eco- system functions including sediment transport and deposition that influenced flow regimes, vegetative cycles, and succession; and reduced the potential for wilderness experiences (Wunderlich et al. 1994). Dams also damaged native cultural and livelihood values on the river. The decommissioning of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams represents an important precedent for progressive water management and the evolution of the perception of removal of dams as a method of social-ecological resilience. This case exemplifies how challenges to dam removal, such as a lack of data and scientific knowledge, dissent among stakeholders, and economic barriers can be successfully overcome and rewilding of the river can occur. In the case of the Elwha, although the dams were originally perceived to provide various social-ecological benefits to the surrounding region, the cultural and environmental benefits of removing and rewilding the river can ultimately outweigh costs.

Rewilding the White Salmon River

The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in the vicinity of Mount Adams in Washington State (Figure 1) was removed in 2011, largely for the purpose of reintroducing anadromous fish species back to the river (Washington State Department of Ecology 2007). The process involved collaboration among a diverse group of stakeholders, from PacifiCorp (the owner of the dam), the Yakama Nation, NOAA Fisheries, federal and state agencies including the Forest Service (USFS), various environmental groups, and river raft/ running companies. However, in the wake of this collaborative effort a potential conflict of use has recently arisen; how much recreation use is too much, what level of use is sustainable, and what forms and levels of use have harmful effects on the river ecosystem and ultimately the Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) that are recovering? In this article, we explore the challenges and barriers to rewilding the White Salmon River and discuss the ORVs that must be understood, negotiated, and managed for rewilding to be effective. We address whether significant increases in one of the ORVs established under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act compromise the other values, and if so, whether it threatens river rewilding. Specifically, for the  White Salmon, does recreational boating compromise salmon habitat? In addition, we reflect on the importance of river monitoring data and scientific knowledge to aid in protecting ORVs.

Figure 1 – Map of the White Salmon Watershed

The Condit removal has provided an increased opportunity for anadromous fish in the river upstream of the old dam site to BZ falls (Figure 2). In addition to the newly accessible habitat for fish, dam removal has opened5 more miles of recreational white- water boating in the former reservoir and bypass reach downstream of the former dam. The opportunity for the boating community to float past the dam site and continue down to the Columbia River has prompted much interest. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 boaters, mostly in paddle rafts and kayaks, use the river each year. There is concern among the federal land management agencies regarding effects of boating-related activities on recolonization and proliferation of endangered Chinook salmon (Hardiman and Allen 2015), an important concern in relation to ecosystem restoration. Native fish species, including Chinook salmon, now can return to a river they have not visited for nearly a century (Figure 3). Chinook salmon will have access to an additional 12 miles of habitat upstream of the dam site, and steel- head (Oncorhynchus mykiss) will have access to an additional 33 miles of habitat (Northwest Power and Conservation Council [NPCC] 2004).

Figure 2 – The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River was removed in 2011, largely for reintroducing anadromous fish species back to the river.

The White Salmon River is well known as a white-water rafting and kayaking destination (Figure 4). This river offers some of the best class III– IV rapids in a natural setting and it is runnable year-round. As the most popular river in the Columbia River Gorge, the White Salmon is a top destination for boaters nationwide. Although white-water rafting is economically important to many rural communities, it may have adverse effects during pre-spawn holding and spawning periods (Sawtooth National Forest [SNF] 1995; NOAA Fisheries 2003). Rafts and kayaks floating down the river while salmon are staging, selecting redd locations, and/or spawning, have been anecdotally recognized to cause displacement of fish from redds (SNF 1995). The extent to which displacement reduces reproductive success has not been empirically determined. In addition, other assumptions suggest rafts and kayaks (float boats) may impact spawning salmon by either delaying onset of spawning or eliciting more rapid spawning than would occur under natural conditions (Fornander 2008). Because fall Chinook salmon leave the White Salmon River shortly after they emerge, spawning and incubation are thought to be among the most critical stages for their life cycle in freshwater (Quinn 2005). Reduced habitat quantity, reduced channel stability, and increased peak flow may also limit productivity of fall Chinook salmon in the White Salmon River (Allen and Connolly 2005). These and other instream flow characteristics, including trans- port of sediment, organic matter, dissolved oxygen, and nutrients, are important factors in river rewilding.

Figure 3 – Native fish species, including Chinook salmon, now can return to a river they have not visited for nearly a century.

The Yakama culture and liveli- hoods are very closely tied to the salmon runs that have historically occurred throughout the Columbia River Basin (Columbia River Inter- Tribal Fish Commission 2014). However, the construction of the system of dams throughout the basin has radically altered the salmon life cycle and, consequently, the lifestyle of the Native people who have historically relied upon them (Harnish et al. 2014). Celilo Falls, located on the Columbia River East of The Dalles, Oregon, was an important trading area and sacred fishing grounds for several tribes in the region before it was completely flooded by the con-truction of the Dalles Dam in 1957 (The Yakama Nation Main Agency Offices 2014). Before the Condit Dam was constructed, the Yakama used to fish for salmon and steelhead on the White Salmon River, and its confluence with the Columbia is a traditional trading area (Washines 2011). The Yakama Nation was a key player in the removal of the Condit Dam in 2011. Along with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, they cosponsored the first engineering study with Paci- fiCorp that demonstrated that dam removal was an economically feasible option and were involved in negotiations throughout the entire process.

With a viable population of Chi- nook salmon returning to the river and the Yakama Nation poised to reestablish its traditional salmon fish- ing practices, the question that can be asked is if the river is really being properly managed for the ORVs determined according to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. On the White Salmon River, NOAA Fisheries are responsible for upholding the protection of endangered species such as Chinook salmon. However, their protection involves potential conflict with other river uses, such as hydro- power, irrigation, and recreation (Poff et al. 2003). Collaboration between scientists and managers is necessary to guide sustainable river management that can balance the needs of these differing uses.

White Salmon Outstandingly Remarkable Values

To be eligible for designation as wild and scenic, a river must be free-flowing and possess one or more ORVs. Two principal avenues exist to determine eligibility. The first is the conventional approach as established by federal agency or contract personnel, in which “[e]ligibility is based on an examination of the river’s hydrology, including any man-made alterations, and an inventory of its natural, cultural and recreational resources” (National Wild and Scenic River System 1999). The second, which is gaining wider appeal, involves assessment of eligibility and suitability for designation by interdisciplinary study teams that may incorporate local, tribal, county, and state governments, along with landowners, user groups, and other major stakeholders. This approach is less formulaic than the conventional agency-based approach and often requires professional judgment, with input sought and documented from organizations and individuals familiar with specific river resources (US Department of Agriculture [USDA] 2011).

Figure 4 – The White Salmon River offers some of the best class III–IV rapids in a natural setting.

In 1986, the lower White Salmon between Gilmer Creek and Buck Creek was designated wild and scenic based on the formal approach outlined above. This designation was based on five ORVs (USDA 1991), although only one is needed for eligibility:

  1. Whitewater Boating – Class III rapids, in a natural setting and runnable year-round
  2. White Salmon River Gorge – natural character, bedrock geology, caves, and numerous falls and springs
  3. Hydrology – sustained flow, springs, and waterfalls that bene- fit fish, recreation, and irrigation
  4. Native American Indian Long- house Site and Cemetery – important religious significance to Yakama Nation
  5. Resident Fish – home to resident trout, steelhead, and anadromous salmon

The ORVs required were proposed by the USFS as the administering agency to “protect and enhance” the river’s free-flowing condition, water quality, and its ORVs. Subsequently, this was followed in 2005 by designation of a longer segment of the upper river between the headwaters and the boundary of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. In both cases, protecting and enhancing the free-flowing condition, water quality, and ORVs formed the basis for management of the wild and scenic river corridor.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provides overall legal authority and requirements for planning and management of rivers that are components of the National Wild and Scenic River System. According to the USDA (1991), “The plan will ordinarily be revised on a 10-year cycle, or at least every 15 years. It may also be revised when monitoring and evaluation indicate conditions or demands within or near the boundary have changed significantly, or when the Area Manager determines that changes in major policies, goals or objectives would have significant effect on the ability to implement the plan.”

In 2010, Burns et al. (2010) con- ducted a river use study on the White Salmon. The principal focus was to better manage Special Use Permits to limit conflicts among visitors during high-use seasons. Specifically, the researchers wanted to identify any perceptions of crowding, acceptable number of times to see others, accept- able time to wait before starting their activity, reasons for recreating, quality of facilities and services, and how others impact their experience. Their work showed that most visitors did not feel crowded on their trip. Results also showed that visitors indicated the number of people they saw was about what they expected or less. Most visitors indicated that it does matter if they see other groups while on the river, and it also matters if they must wait before starting their activity. When visitors were asked what type of experience they think should be provided, more than one-third (38%) reported undeveloped recreation. Another 30% felt semi-wilderness opportunities should be provided. Visitors’ expectation as to how many other groups are acceptable to see during their trip was 5 times on average. Similarly, visitors reported (mean = 4.70) that they saw approximately what they expected. The majority (77%) of visitors reported 15 people or fewer when asked what their preferred group size is to run the river. Correspondingly, when asked how many people are in their group, the vast majority (90%) stated 15 people or fewer.

Recreational Use Levels on the White Salmon River

The White Salmon has experienced tremendous growth from approximately 4,000 visitors in 1987 to nearly 20,000 in 2007 (Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Interagency Team 2014). Recent studies were undertaken in 2014 (Gimblett et al. 2015) and repeated in 2016 using remote cameras on the upper section of the river from BZ Corners to Husum. Cameras continuously recorded boating activities from a fixed position along the river between June 27 and October 5. During this part of 2016, more than 5,475 rafts, 2,911 kayaks, and 31,926 visitors were recorded and documented on the river (Gimblett 2016).

To put use levels on the White Salmon River in perspective, about 26,000 people raft the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek each year on permitted trips (Jackson 2012), including both private and commercial users. Approximately 10,000 people float the popular Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho on permitted trips (Middle Fork 2015). The Lower Deschutes River has daily and seasonal targets for boaters established by river segment. Those management targets range from as low as 325 and 19,600 on river section 4 to the highest range on river section 2 of 1,700 and 74,100 (United States Department of Interior [USDI] 1993). Therefore, per width and length, the White Salmon River is one of the most heavily used rafting and kayaking rivers in the country, with the Forest Service being the permitting agency for the commercial rafting companies (Gimblett et al. 2015).

Do current River Use Levels Threaten the Wild Salmon ORVs?

The White Salmon River runs through a remote, rugged, and thriving wildland setting and is sustained by the human communities that live, work, and play there. The river is recovering, both socially and ecologically, after the removal of the Condit Dam. As this rewilding is in process, social and ecological conditions continue to change. Increased stresses such as increased boating use on the river may be detrimental and result in slowing down the rewilding and recovery processes. In fact, recreation may now be putting pressure on other system components – namely species and habitats that are known to be vulnerable to human disturbance.

The lack of discernable criteria for determining, monitoring, and evaluating river use capacity on the White Salmon River is problematic in properly managing for ORVs and are without ways to assess the ORV validity and longevity. Cur- rent growth in river use (Figure 5) threatens the ability for the river to adequately rewild. It perhaps even has an impact on other ORVs, such as the natural character of the gorge, Yakama cultural values, and return- ing salmon. It is prudent to say that management strategies are needed to protect other ORVs, implemented via a  management  plan  that more accurately accounts for growing use levels and expectations on the river. River capacity should be formally examined to preserve and protect the ORVs established for the White Salmon River in the 1991 management plan and adequately maintain its status as a federally designated wild and scenic river.

Lessons from Efforts to Rewild and Protect ORVs

This case exemplifies how challenges to dam removal, such as a lack of data and scientific knowledge, dissent among stakeholders, and economic barriers can be overcome so that rivers can begin to be rewilded. However, sustained monitoring, enhanced participation of private land owners as well as other stakeholders, and active management consistent with protecting and enhancing the river as required under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act are needed to protect multiple ORVs. Following our definition of river rewilding above, the case of the White Salmon River after the Condit Dam removal indicates that: (1) aquatic and river-corridor ecosystems are actively undergoing restoration, (2) connectivity has been reestablished especially for salmon to migrate upstream of the dam site (but with likely impacts from heavy river use), (3) anecdotal evidence suggests that hydro-geomorphological conditions for sediment and water quality have improved, and (4) social-ecological values remain heavily oriented toward river-running recreation with potential high impact on Yakama Indigenous cultural values and aesthetic values of local landowners.

Figure 5 – Stream stage height and rafts by River Section (Blue Upper Section = number of rafts daily noted above peaks on graph), (Orange = Middle Section) (Grey = Lower Section not to scale on x-axis) (Gimblett et al. 2015)

We believe the recovery of the White Salmon River is threatened by increasing human use during post- dam removal rewilding. Ultimately, agencies, an array of stakeholders, the Yakama Nation, and the public need to come together to make conscious decisions about the kind of recreation opportunities and conditions they want to see and properly man- age for on the White Salmon River. In the face of increasing river use, the challenge is to make deliberate and well-informed decisions about what kind of place the White Salmon River should be for consistency with its wild and scenic river designation and the mix of recreation opportunities desired in the future.

RANDY GIMBLETT is a professor at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment of the University of Arizona, Tucson. He has been engaged in research work studying human-landscape interactions and their associated conflicts and public policies related to protection of special environments and environmental experiences for more than three decades; email:

CHRISTOPHER A. SCOTT is a professor of geography and development and research professor of water resources policy at the University of Arizona, focusing on river-basin resilience in the US Southwest, the Andes, and Himalayas; email:

MIA HAMMERSLEY is a student of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona and completed a master’s of science in water, society and policy at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment; email:


Allen, M. B., and P. J. Connolly. 2005. Assessment of the White Salmon watershed using the ecosystem diagnosis and treatment model. Cook, WA: US Geological Survey, Columbia River Research Laboratory.

Burns, R. C., A. R. Graefe, K. Robinson, and S. Woodruff. 2010. 2009 White Salmon Wild and Scenic River Recreation Use Study: An Evaluation of River Use Patterns. Final report submitted to the USDA Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Pacific Northwest (R6) Region Hood River, Oregon.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Interagency Team. 2014. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Interagency Recreation Team: Recreation Report and Recommended Interim Strategies. November.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. 2014. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The Columbia River Inter- Tribal Fish Commission. Retrieved from the-confederated-tribes-and-bands-of- the-yakama-nation/.

East, A. E., G. R. Pess, J. A. Bountry, C. S. Magirl, A. C. Ritchie. J. B. Logan, and M. C. Liermann. 2015. Large-scale dam removal on the Elwha River, Washington, USA: River channel and floodplain geomorphic change. Geomorphology 228: 765–786.

Foreman, D. 2004. Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Fornander, D. E. 2008. Fish, floatboats, and feds: The impact of commercial floatboating on ESA listed salmon, disproportionate regulation and directions for recovery throughout the Columbia River Basin. Unpublished Phd dissertation. University of Arizona, Tucson.

Gimblett, H. R., C. A. Scott, and M. Hammersley. 2015. Freeing the White Salmon River: Dam Removal, Climate Change, Fish, and Rafting on a Tribal Sacred River. Report prepared for Exploratory Grants, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Gimblett, H. R. 2016. White Salmon River monitoring study summer 2016. Unpublished manuscript.

Gunderson, L. H., C. R. Allen, and C. S. Holling, eds. 2010. Foundations of Ecological Resilience. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hardiman, J. M., and M. B. Allen. 2015. Salmon Habitat Assessment for Conservation Planning in the Lower White Salmon River, Washington. US Geological Survey Open-File Report 2015-1100.

Harnish, R. A., R. Sharma, G. A. McMichael, R.B. Langshaw, and T. N. Pearsons. 2014. Effect of hydroelectric dam operations on the freshwater productivity of a Columbia River fall Chinook salmon population. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 71(4): 602–615.

Jackson, K. 2012. Rafting into the wild in Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Seattle Times. Retrieved from 2017960143_ trgrandcanyon15.html.

Middle Fork of the Salmon. 2015. Retrieved from Middle_Fork_Of_The_Salmon_4_ Rivers/r/ ctCode=NRSO&parkId=75534.

National Wild and Scenic River System. 1999. The Wild & Scenic River Study Process. Technical report of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council. December.

NOAA Fisheries. 2003. Biological Opinion- Outfitted/Guided Commercial and Non-Outfitted Float Boating and Walk/ Wade Angling Special Use Permit Renewals. Idaho Habitat Branch, Northwest Region. (Issues July 2003.)

Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC). 2004. Draft White Salmonsubbasin plan: Portland, Oregon, Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Poff, N. L., J. D. Allan, M. B. Bain, J. R. Karr, K. L. Prestegaard, B. D. Richter, and J. C. Stromberg. 1997. The natural flow regime: A paradigm for river conservation and restoration. BioScience 47: 769–784.

Poff, N. L., J. D. Allan, M. A. Palmer, D. D. Hart, B. D. Richter, A. H. Arthington, and J. A. Stanford. 2003. River flows and water wars: Emerging science for environmental decision making. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1(6): 298–306.

Quinn, T. P. 2005. The Behavior and Ecology of Pacific Salmon and Trout. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Sandom, C., C. J. Donlan, J. C. Svenning, and D. Hansen. 2013. Rewilding. Key Topics in Conservation Biology 2: 430–451.

Sawtooth National Forest (SNF), Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). 1995. Effects of the Main Salmon River float boating activities on Snake River sockeye salmon and Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon, biological assessment (BA).

The Yakama Nation Main Agency Offices. 2014. Yakama Nation history. The Yakama Nation Official Website. Retrieved from php.

Washines, E. 2011. The Condit Dam removal and moving forward in the White Salmon River. Indian Country Today. Retrieved from: http://indiancountry- condit-dam-removal-and-moving-forward- white-salmon-river.

Washington State Department of Ecology. 2007. Condit Dam Removal: Final SEPA Supple- mental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS).

Wunderlich, R. C., B. D. Winter, and J. H. Meyer. 1994. Restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem. Fisheries 19(8): 11–19.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Pacific Northwest Region. 1991. Lower White Salmon: National Wild and Scenic River Management Plan. November.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service and Columbia Gorge Commission. 2011. Management Plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. September.

US Department of Interior (USDI). 1993. Lower Deschutes River Management Plan Record of Decision. US Department of Interior. Bureau of Land Management. February.