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July 2004

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Olympic National Park

By John G. Mitchell
A name can say a lot about a place, or nothing at all. Olympic says a lot. It says that this is as good as it gets. Here, astride the pinnacle of excellence, stands the champion. Fitting, then, that mapmakers should borrow the modifier from mythology and stamp it upon this peninsula poking fist-like into the Pacific at the westernmost edge of the 48 contiguous United States. And if the word suits the peninsula, why not recycle it to the peninsula's national park, overlorded as it is by the mountain Olympus, named for the throne room of the Grecian gods?
The park is a throne room in its own right: More than 900,000 acres of icy summits and alpine meadows, rushing rivers and glacial lakes, fog-shrouded sea stacks and surf-fed tide pools; a sanctuary for spawning salmon and rutting elk; a seedbed of spruce and fir and cedar soaring above a rain forest as grand as any in the world. Who knows? Among American landscapes, Olympic National Park just might be better than it ever gets.
For this you can cheer a circumstance of nature and an act of human restraint. The circumstance is water. Offshore the warm surface of the Kuroshio (Japan Current) heats the air, creating weather. Storm clouds scud ashore. Forced upward by the slopes of the Olympic Mountains, the cooling clouds lose their capacity to retain moisture. And down comes the rain and snow—lots of it. The west side of the peninsula shakes down more precipitation annually than any other spot in the lower 48—an average of 135 inches inland from the coast, more than 200 inches, most of it as snow, near the 7,965-foot summit of Mount Olympus, the peninsula's highest point. Without this accident of ocean storms ambushed by coastal mountains rising practically straight out of the sea, there would be no glaciers here (there are more than 60), no perennially rushing rivers, possibly fewer salmon, and nowhere near the depth of rich alluvial soil needed to nurture champion conifers. That's nature's part in it. But without the intervention of people determined to protect these resources from commercial exploitation, there would be no Olympic Park.
First-time visitors can be overwhelmed by the park's accessible diversities. "You get three totally different experiences for the price of one park," a young woman said one drizzling day in the Quinault Valley. "Rugged mountains, wild beaches, and this spectacular rain forest in between, all of it doable in a day if you don't stray too far from your car." Those who do stray will have the beaches, mountains, and forests mostly to themselves. Ninety-five percent of Olympic Park is statutory wilderness—quite a lot considering it is only 40 miles from a major U.S. city, Seattle. U.S. Highway 101 brackets the park on three sides. From the highway, a dozen spur roads, some unpaved, enter the park for a short distance to end, full stop, at a trailhead. Beyond the trailheads lie 600 miles of paths, lacing the wilderness.
The entire peninsula was raw wilderness once upon a time, home for at least 10,000 years to Native Americans. Today their descendants reside for the most part along the coast in tribal communities seeking to preserve the Makah, Klallam, Quileute, Quinault, Hoh, and Skokomish cultures.
The first European to sight the peninsula was likely that seafaring Greek, Juan de Fuca, who, sailing for Spain in 1592, imagined he had discovered a waterway that led east across the New World, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. In exchange for Juan's honest mistake, we get his eponymous strait. As for poking into the peninsula's mountainous interior, that would have to wait for another three centuries and a U.S. Army lieutenant named Joseph O'Neil, whose bushwhacking ascent from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge in 1885 would take an entire month (a spur road gets you there today in less than an hour). O'Neil is believed to be the first non-Indian to set foot there, as well as the first individual to advance the idea of an Olympic national park.
But before there could be a park there would be a forest reserve, established by President Grover Cleveland in 1897 and dedicated to the proposition that henceforth on some two million acres—more than half the peninsula—commercial logging would be sharply restricted. As it turned out, "henceforth" lasted only three years, after which time Cleveland's successor, William McKinley, hearkening to the laments of the lumber barons, remanded one-third of the reserve's land back into the wide-open, come-and-get-it public domain. And this was only the beginning of a long, peninsular tug-of-war between the folks who like their conifers straight up, and those who prefer them on the rocks, horizontally merchantable. Succeeding McKinley—and countermanding his giveaway—Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 invoked the Antiquities Act to designate part of the forest reserve as Mount Olympus National Monument. But the idea wasn't simply to save the conifers from the loggers. T. R. also hoped to protect the elk from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, whose members fancied the creatures' incisors dangling from their watch fobs.
By the early 1930s conservationists, based largely on the East Coast, were lobbying the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to take the monument away from the U.S. Forest Service (an agency then devoted almost exclusively to selling timber) and expand it into a full-fledged park under the National Park Service. In 1937 Roosevelt paid a visit to the peninsula in an open touring car. Three thousand schoolchildren had been rounded up to greet him in front of the courthouse in Port Angeles, and a big sign proclaimed: "Please, Mr. President, we children need your help. Give us our Olympic national park." Within a year, they got it.
Other parks may boast of mountains or beaches, but none has a forest to match the qualities of this one. A temperate rain forest, scientists and tree huggers call it, and possibly the finest swatch of botanical intemperance along an evergreen coast extending almost 2,000 miles from northern California to southern Alaska. Mosey by trail or spur road into one of the park's west-facing valleys and, for starters, keep your eyes to the ground. Here in the understory are mosses, horsetail, hedge nettle, sword fern, salmonberry, and sorrel, each species rooted in a floor of rotting wood—an accumulation of fallen trees and organic duff said to be the densest on Earth, exceeding that of any tropical rain forest. Lift your eyes to the midstory, and here are red alder and black cottonwood and vine maples festooned with mosses and other epiphytes. Then put a crick in your neck to behold the venerable columns of the big trees.
It has been said that Olympic National Park and the wilder edges of the Olympic National Forest abutting it are entitled to claim the gold medal for sprouting more champion conifers than any area of comparable size in the United States. Up the Quinault Valley reigns the world's largest western red cedar, with a chest-high circumference of 61 feet and an antiquity that might have seeded it here before Juan de Fuca was chest high himself. A bit farther up the Quinault, hang a left on Big Creek Trail, and you'll encounter the nation's largest yellow cedar. Elsewhere, the park can boast of its world champion subalpine fir and western hemlock, while the national forest registers the world champion Sitka spruce and a Douglas fir that is 302 feet tall. But if you've seen these champs (should you be so lucky), you haven't necessarily seen them all. Other contenders, as yet undiscovered, could well be skulking in the dripping declivities of this arboreal paradise.
I first visited the peninsula about 15 years ago, on a journalistic mission to admire not the height or girth of the park's standing giants but rather the volume of wood the timber industry was then cutting from the forest surrounding the park, and the mood of the working people who looked to that cut for their daily bread. As it turned out, their mood was contentious, for this was at a period in the history of the Pacific Northwest known as the spotted owl wars, and the volume of the allowable cut from the national forest was in sharp decline. The way some of the local folks saw it, it was bad enough that the federal government should get even stingier with logs after the park had already deprived the sawmills of the peninsula's best timber; but now, even worse, for the sake of this goofy threatened owl, the environmentalists were in court putting some state and private timber off-limits too. Over in Forks, a blue-collar community on the west side that billed itself as the Logging Capital of the World, the town clerk enumerated all the set-asides that were reducing the workforce in the woods and at the mills and said, "I don't know. Sometimes it seems that they don't want anyone living out here." I didn't need an interpreter to know what he meant by "they."
Moods and expectations can change over time. In the course of my latest sortie to the Olympic, I circled the park on U.S. 101, from Hoodsport in the east through Port Angeles and Forks to Quinault on the southwest. At motels and restaurants along the way, I heard little if any grumbling about the federal presence on the peninsula, though it was evident from the relative scarcity of visible clear-cuts and logging trucks that the timber harvest was still in decline. "The community has been reinventing itself over the past ten years," said Russ Veenema, when I reached him by phone at his office as executive director of the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce. "There are two big factors that keep us going here. One is the ferry bringing tourists over from Victoria, British Columbia. The other is Olympic National Park." And in Forks, where the number of motels and B&Bs has doubled in the past decade, a businesswoman said: "The contentiousness is behind us now. The park has become a real good neighbor. We're moving on."
Sometime later this year the National Park Service will distribute the draft of a plan describing how it intends to manage Olympic National Park in the future. The plan will examine to what extent, if any, park roads, trails, structures—even boundaries—might be adjusted either to accommodate an increasing number of visitors with all their diverse expectations or to emphasize the protection of the park's natural resources, possibly even by limiting visitor use with a quota system. The third alternative, of course, is to strike a balance between those two concepts. Following a period for public comment and town meetings, the agency will revise, publish, and prepare to implement a final plan next year.
Olympic National Park Superintendent Bill Laitner is hoping the public will speak up loud and clear. "This is one of the nation's most treasured places," he says. "It doesn't belong to the Park Service or the federal government. It belongs to the American people, and Americans ought to have a huge say in how we manage their park."
Stay tuned.


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