Olympic National Park

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Olympic National Park
Sedge for resoration project · The Needles at Royal Basic · Deer Fern | Olympic National Park

Volunteering | In the summer of 2002 I volunteered on a restoration team at Olympic National Park. I had many reasons for donating my time to the park service ranging from a vague desire to give something back to a simple curiosity about the inner workings of the park system. The main reason, however, was the park itself. Of the public land in the continental United States, few compare with the diversity and beauty of Olympic National Park. I can think of no other place where it is possible to begin a hike on on an ocean beach, walk through several distinct ecosytems and finish on a moraine overlooking a glacier.

Volunteering was a worthwhile experience. I managed to see most of the park, spent many nights in the backcountry, received a crash course in environmental law, marveled at the manpower necessary to minimize human impact, and learned more Latin names for plants than I'll ever need. This left little time for photography, but I did manage to get away from time to time when the light was good. What follows are a few photos and some thoughts on the issues that confront our wilderness. If you are looking for an interesting experience, consider working as a volunteer for the National Park Service, it's a good way to spend a few months and the parks can certainly use the help.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 | We've made a lot of bad decisions in the history of resource management. In the name of preservation we have wiped out most of the predators, introduced countless invasive species and poisoned lakes and streams. Although in hindsight these actions seem ridiculous, they represent the conservation values of their time. Looking back over the history of conservation you might wonder if we ever did anything right. I asked Ruth Scott, a Natural Resources Management Specialist at Olympic National Park, if there was any decision ever made that we can, with confidence, look back on and say was a good idea. After some thought she said, "well, I suppose the Wilderness Act."

The wilderness Act was passed in 1964 in order to ensure that some areas of this country remain untouched. Although the National Park system had been around for almost 100 years, historically the parks had been more concerned with recreation than with preservation. A designated wilderness would be a different kind of area, one without roads or commercial enterprise, without permanent improvements, one that would retain its primeval character. Thanks to the passionate effort of Howard Zahniser the act puts forward a rather poetic vision of what wilderness is. It should be primitive, have outstanding opportunities for solitude, appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable.

The Language of Wilderness | In 1759 Edmund Burke wrote, "The Passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror."

For Burke, nature was a power that so dwarfed human accomplishment and ability that our first reaction is terror and astonishment, which become the foundation of beauty and power. The concept of wilderness has ranged from Shakespeare's Arden Forest, "free from peril" and full of merry men to John Muir's description as "God's first temple," to the early 20th century consensus that it was a vast resource to be conquered. Although today in the United States wilderness is a narrowly defined legal entity, the definition of wild is still debatable. Thoreau's claim "that in Wildness is the preservation of the world" draws a distinction between wilderness as a parcel of land, and wildness which should be its character. With its huge network of trails complete with stairs, bridges, bear wires, signs, and man-made tent pads, can the Olympic Wilderness still be called wild in the sense meant by Thoreau? Certainly. Thoreau considered the bog in the corner of his property wild. As for Burke, I imagine if you took him from his home in 18th century England, told him of the legendary stick people, and dropped him in the middle of the Queets River valley it would shake him to his core. But some of the wild has been removed from the wilderness. The bears all have tags in their ears, the owls are inventoried, the landmarks have all been pinpointed with GPS systems and the place is so well known that the sublime as Burke intended it has relocated far off trail. The Olympics are substantial enough that with effort you can still be completely lost and alone in one the densest, most dangerous, and indeed wildest places in continental United States.

The Quinault Valley | Some of the largest trees in the world live deep in the Quinault Valley. These trees receive a lot of attention and are the main attraction in this old growth forest. The trees, however, are not the whole story and age is not the defining characteristic of old growth; it is as much the diversity of life and the forest floor as it is the trees. A complex layer of detritus and fallen wood covering the ground provides the foundation of this ecosystem. It is an extremely rich biomass with hundreds of years of fallen debris at various stages of decomposition. Unlike second-growth forests where the trees grow at the same rate forming a dense, tightly packed canopy, the trees here are of all different sizes and ages resulting in gaps that allow a variety of species to survive—and they flourish on every surface. You won't find a downed log or snag that isn't carpeted with moss and young plants. This rich surface layer is also the perfect environment for smaller insects and rodents, which in turn are food for the larger animals in the forest. Everything has its place and purpose here. You can't hike through this valley without an overwhelming sense of how balanced and complex the ecosystem of the forest is; the trees are only the most noticeable part.

Restoration Projects | You might think a wilderness could take care of itself; it survived a long time without our help. But problems arise when people use the wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act designates areas "for the use and enjoyment of the American people" but further stipulates that these areas "shall be administered in such manner as will leave them unimpaired." This is the fundamental problem: using an area, especially by the huge numbers that visit a national park, will not leave it unimpaired. To be compliant with the law requires a heroic effort from the people in the park service. One of these people is Matt Albright who manages the greenhouse at Olympic National Park and works to restore heavily impacted areas in the wilderness. This sedge is one of over 22,000 plants that were grown in his greenhouse for a restoration project in 2002. Various plants including grasses, sedges, heathers, and several small ground covers were grown from seeds and cuttings then transported to Royal Basin where park employees and volunteers worked nine-hour days for a month and a half to plant them in heavily impacted areas before the snow made work impossible.<

The Park Economy | In 1991 the spotted owl took on the logging industry, most conservative organizations, and president George H.W. Bush and won. In what is now recognized as standard Bush family parlance, the President argued that we will be up to our necks in spotted owls and people, without the resources of the logging industry, would be endangered. Ten years later the spotted owl is still in trouble but the town of Forks continues on. Stores are still open, people are still working, and because the economy is changing from one that served loggers to one that serves yuppies in SUVs, the restaurants can now charge $6.99 for eggs rather than $2.99 and stores will sell you a $300 Gore-Tex jacket rather than a $30 vinyl one. The Northwest economy has not only refused to collapse, it is expanding. The lessons are simple: you can't encourage growth by hanging on to dying industries and you don't need to choose between the economy and the environment.

There is little growth potential in logging the Northwest and the political lobbyists and PR firms have long since moved on to the more fertile ground of water reclamation and oil drilling leaving the logging interest to handle their own spin with unsophisticated slogans like the one I saw on a sign just outside the park: "future forests begin with logging." Most of the logging that occurs in the state is by a select group of large corporations like Weyerhauser who own and manage entire forests. They have little incentive to fight for old growth logging, which would only compete with their core business. The real environmental fight for forests has moved overseas where the timber industry and the American consumer are taking advantage of depressed economies in undeveloped nations by clearing forests cheaply with little or no political resistance.

Perspective on Controversy | On one hand there are those who speak of the demise of the world through the mistreatment of the environment, and on the other, those who speak of the collapse of the economy through an overprotection of resources. The environmentalists vs. the economists. Pro-jobs vs. pro-forests. Spotted owls vs. the loggers. They have been exchanging blows since the advent of public property—at last count I'm not sure who is ahead. It looks like the pro-jobs group will need to switch tactics, however, because the public has begun to take note of the ephemeral nature of money made from the permanent elimination of wilderness. As wilderness has become rare, it has recently dawned on the environmentalists that land with timber might be more valuable now than timber removed from the land. Not having as many economists on their side, it took them a little longer to catch on to the law of supply and demand, but now that they have it, they can't stop producing economic reports. Where their statements used to be filled with inspiring poetry about the soul and solitude, they now have slick charts and tabulations. The economists (not to be confused with the new economically-savvy environmentalists) finding the wind stolen from their sails, have tacked in the direction of national security.

Hurricane Ridge | Many areas in the backcountry are used too much for their own good. But still, I always encourage people to get away from the crowds and the parking lots, to leave their cars and go for a walk. The area is wonderful, but there is a reason that you see it in every guidebook, calendar, and travelogue about the area—you can snap this photo while standing on asphalt and then walk a few feet for an ice cream sandwich from the visitor center. No matter how many interpretive signs you read or pictures you look at you will never appreciate the primeval character of this wilderness without hiking at least a few miles into it. Hurricane Ridge is beautiful, but the Enchanted Valley, the high Sol Duc, the upper reaches of Royal Basin, are all better because when you are there they surround you. No matter how attractive the Bailey mountain range is from this spot, I always know that when I turn around I will see traffic and salt-hungry deer licking spilled anti-freeze off the parking lot.

The Size of Wilderness | One of the primary challenges to designated wilderness areas is their size. With some exceptions the wilderness act requires at least 5000 acres before an area can be designated wilderness. 5000 acres sounds substantial, but it is only 7.8 square miles—an easy day hike. There are 645 wilderness areas. Of them 360 are smaller than 30,000 acres. For scale consider that Walt Disney World is about 30,000 acres. In fact, the landscaping alone at Disney World occupies around 3,500 acres—larger than 49 of the wilderness areas. The Olympic wilderness is substantially larger at 876,669 acres, but not large enough to be worry free. The now famous spotted owl has recently been receiving unexpected competition in the park from the larger, more aggressive bared owl, which threatens to displace it. Scientists suspect that the clear cut around the boundaries of the park have removed a buffer between old growth and open ground allowing the barred owl to make successful forays in the denser regions of the wilderness.

In such small isolated pockets wilderness does not have a defense against ecological shocks. A drought, fire, or invasive insect can destroy an entire species in one blow. Consider the trees in the Smoky Mountains. In only a few years the appetite of the balsam wooly adelgid has all but wiped out the Fraser fir tree. Even in a place as large as the Smoky Mountains the disappearance of a major overstory species is a shock from which the ecosystem cannot easily recover. The dilemma faced by the wilderness areas in the continental US is something to think about when deciding how much land is necessary in the last remaining viable wilderness areas left in our country, those in Alaska, which are under enormous political pressure due to the resources they contain.