The Wild Olympic National Park, Sanctuary of Biodiversity

Beautiful Natural Heritage

The Sur la Route du Patrimoine Project’s Team started the visit of the Olympic National Park, designated in 1982 as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, by the visit of the Visitor Center where we had an appointment with Ms. Gay Hunter (Park’s Museum Curator) and M. Rod Farlee (Member of the Friends of the Olympic National Park).

Meeting at the Visitor Center with Rod Farlee and Gay Hunter

Meeting at the Visitor Center with Rod Farlee and Gay Hunter

The Olympic National Park is a land of beauty and variety.  A day’s exploration can take us from breathtaking mountain vistas with meadows of wildflowers to colorful ocean tidepools.  But it is without counting on the very rainy and wet weather at this season! Now we know why there is the temperate rainforest growing there! Nestled in the valleys are some of the largest remnants of ancient forests (old-growth forests) left in the USA.

Some Features of the Park

  • 922,651 acres
  • Around 200,000 inhabitants living around the Park, in the Olympic Peninsula
  • 96% of the park is Congressionally-designated as Wilderness through the Wilderness Act (1964, extended in 1988)
  • 73 miles of wilderness coast
  • over 3,000 miles of rivers and streams
  • 60 named glaciers
  • over 1,200 native plant taxa
  • at least 16 kinds of endemic animals and 8 kinds of endemic plants
  • 20 reptile and amphibian species
  • 37 native fish species
  • 300 bird species
  • 56 mammal species, including 24 marine mammal species
  • 22 species listed as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act
  • 50 – 70 research permits issues annually

Cultural Resources

  • over 650 archaeological sites
  • 130 historic structures (trail shelters, homestead cabins, fire lookout, rangers stations, lodges…) among which 43 in the wilderness area.
  • nearly 500,000 museum objects
  • 1 archeological site eligible for National Historic Landmark status (Ozette site), see another article about the Makah Tribe Culture

Recreation Resources

  • 16 developed campgrounds
  • 64 trailheads
  • 611 miles of trail
  • 168 miles of road
  • 457 buildings
  • 175 outdoor wayside exhibits
  • 4 overnight concession-operated lodges
  • 2 day-use concession facilities
  • 1 concession-operated downhill ski operation and 1 concession-operated river rafting operation
  • 70 Incidental Business Permit holders who conduct a variety of guided hikes and trips in the park

Wilderness and Cultural Resources

The act establishing Olympic National Park was signed on 1938 by the US President and in 1988 nearly 96 percent of the park was designated as Wilderness. This means that the interior of the Park is accessible only by trail and has no road, no logging road providing access for outdoors activities suitable for wilderness areas. So in the majority of the Park, there is no direct (local)  human threats – tourist development or mining or logging.  But just outside the Park boundary, we had the choice to see the effects of logging very clearly, and pass through many clearcut areas along Highway 101.

Paradoxically, as M. Farlee explained to us, certain aspects of  human heritage within the park are in danger. The designation as a Wilderness Park drove some sad episodes, such as the eviction of two dozen families from their homesteads in the Queets Valley in order to preserve the watershed and restore its natural characteristics. Some backcountry structures have been removed without cultural compliance according to historic preservation laws. Maintenance of historic structures within Wilderness is also contentious and uncertain, particularly in light of the recent court decision on the Green Mountain Lookout , effectively nullifying the National Historic Preservation Act within Wilderness. Multi-layers structure and regulations are also found outside of Europe!

For more information about the history of the human settlement in the Olympic Peninsula, read that. The Project will share soon an interview we had with a representative of one the tribe in the corner of the Peninsula.

Climate Change Big Threat

Blue Glacier Evolution

Blue Glacier Evolution

In comparing aerial photos from the late 1970s to 2009, researchers detected over 30% loss of glacier surface area in only 30 years. For the two glaciers on Mount Anderson, a rugged peak in the southeastern part of the park, the findings are even more stark. Since 1920, the north-facing Eel Glacier has shrunk by about 50%. Between 1927 and 2009, the south-facing Anderson Glacier, familiar to hikers as one of the few glaciers in the park accessible by trail, receded to less than 10% of its former size! Early results to determine the volume of ice loss show at least a 15% loss in total ice volume in the 22 years from 1987-2009.

These critical and beautiful rivers of ice have shaped and adorned the Olympic Mountains for millennia, but have rapidly shrunk in just decades, stark evidence of the ongoing impact of climate change. The data and photographs are clear. What’s unclear is if humans will to make the changes necessary to help these icons of the Pacific Northwest summits persist. For more information in that, read this report.

To date, this is primarily due to the end of the Little Ice Age a century ago.  However, rising atmospheric CO2 levels have « locked in » increasing global warming for centuries to come.  As glaciers continue to retreat, river flows in late summer are forecast to fall, which will affect salmon.  Sea level rise and ocean acidification will also affect the primary coastal food chain, from microscopic plankton through shellfish.

Some ecosystems are in danger due to the changes in human activities. For example, the micro-habitat of Prairies in Ozette region, a living legacy of at least 6500 years active fire management by Native Americans, is threatened by lost of fire use by the Native populations driving to the vegetation closure with forest, as detailed by Kat Anderson and Jacilee Wray. Ozette Prairies are openings of bog, fen, and grassland in a forest of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western redcedar—lie two kilometers east of the Pacific Ocean, well within hearing distance of barking sea lions on the rocky islands offshore (Anderson, Kat. 2009).

Eco-tourism Facts 

More than 3 millions visitors come to the Park, around 1% hiking and camping overnight in the Park’s wilderness. Over 23,000 visitors attended ranger-led education programs in 2005. It is hard to tell if there was an effect of the UNESCO designation in touristic attraction as there was no statistics available before the designation.

Nature Bridge is one organization that aims to raise awareness to general public and children about the sustainable development and environment protection, and provide some training about trips in the Nature, teaching the responsible tourism. Its programs serve around 6000 students, school teachers and tribal members each year. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to meet them at this period of the year!

Local Collaboration and « No-Park » Opposition

During our ride around the West and the South side of the Peninsula, from Port Angeles to Forks, La Push (famous beach thanks to the Twiligh book story), Quinault then Aberdeen, we realized the still existing effects of the National Park. We saw many signs against the Park extension, against the Park wilderness, that « kills jobs and lives ». Before the Park, the economy was tremendously pushed by the logging industry extracting huge amount from the very productive lush forest. With the Park and its regulations, it is no more possible within the boundaries of the Park. The direct and brutal consequence was for many families and cities the end of incomes and activity. That is why we crossed ghost cities like Aberdeen that former wealthiness was based on logging, mills and paper industry as well as fishing.

Some of the road signs we've seen on the road against the Park expansion

Some of the road signs we’ve seen on the road against the Park expansion

  • So, what about the current situation and apparent conflicts?
« This is complicated », said Rod. The Wild Olympics campaign, a local group of conservation organizations, is petitioning US Congress for changes in how Federal lands are managed.  They propose US Congress extend Wilderness areas and protect rivers within Olympic National Forest. Their original proposed also included additions to Olympic National Park, but this proposal met with political opposition, so they dropped it. Their current proposal affects only Olympic National Forest (managed by US Forest Service), not Olympic NP (managed by National Park Service).
However, signs remain posted along the road opposing the Park expansions.  « This comes from history and lack of public trust in the National Park Service (NPS,) and I would say some of that is justified, but it is not helpful », Rod added.
The merits of this proposal are complicated, and require understanding the current laws, policy (especially the Northwest Forest Plan), and the land and rivers in detail. Which is not easy and accessible for all local people.
Rod found out that the Wild Olympics proposal has good parts and bad parts.  Instead of supporting the Wild Olympics campaign, he chose to support the existing Northwest Forest Plan and the upcoming Olympic Forest Plan, which will evaluate the proposal in detail with science and law, and adopt the good parts of it.
  • How is the local population involved in the NP project, in its governance?
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and NPS policy mandate public involvement in all significant policies or actions.  This includes public meetings and public comment periods on policy and on specific projects.  Olympic NP is now in the midst of this process in its Wilderness Stewardship Plan.
All these plans and projects are constrained by a complex network of more than two dozen Federal laws, including the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act.  This limits what alternatives NPS may propose, and what the public ask NPS to do, too.
According to Rod Farlee, from the Friends of the Olympic National Park, what is done by the NPS for the management and the preservation of the Nature « is very good in not taking any destructive action, but not good in taking new, constructive actions ».  It is very slow to make any decision or take any action.  A major reason: US Congress has passed too many overlapping, conflicting laws.  But also partly due to NPS culture – highest priority is to avoid making any mistake, avoiding the risk of making change or taking new initiatives.
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