Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wilderness Future

The first time I visited Olympic National Park, WA. was 1968. My first stop was Kalaloch Beach. I went to a campfire program on the beach that evening and took a picture of the Ranger Naturalist looking out across the ocean, his palm sheltering his eyes from the glare of the setting sun, and its reflective path across the water. It was a wild and beautiful beach, full of life.
It was ten years before I was able to return to Kalaloch Beach. It seemed as though little had changed. Gaila and I went to the naturalist program, and yes, the same ranger I had captured on film a decade earlier was giving the nightly talk.

But things have changed at Kalaloch, Olympic National Park and the once pristine forests that bordered the area. Persistent progress continues to squeeze the natural life out of this magical landscape as it does so many other supposedly protected regions of the world.

Gaila and I backpacked along Hurricane Ridge in the late 70s. During the first night the sounds just outside our tent wall frightened Gaila into thinking we were being visited by a black bear. I assured her it was only mountain goats digging around our site for salt. Her first question was, "Why is there salt around our site?" I had to explain that many other campers in this site have urinated over the years leaving salt deposits. I should have stuck with the bear visitation!

Like the giant mastodon that once roamed the park, the goats are about to disappear also. With no one able to prove or convince the park service that the goats are native to the area the damage they do to delicate alpine soil will soon have them evicted.

In the 80s over a quarter of a million gallons of heavy bunker oil dirtied not only Kalaloch, but hundreds of miles of pristine beach from Oregon to British Columbia. Thousands of birds and other ocean life were killed leaving a lasting scar in the shifting sands of time along this sacred shore.

The 90s scored the boundaries of the park with clear-cutting right to the quick of National Park/National Forest property lines. If not for the creation of this country’s National Park System there truly would be nothing left of the few areas we have set aside. Even these areas that most Americans think of as hallowed ground are under constant attack from interests that battle for the resources they hold. Patriotism is used as leverage to rally support for what is blatant corporate greed. Money driven politics grease the wheels that turn up the pressure to ease protective legislation.

Logging peaked in the 1980s when timber companies raced to cut as many trees as possible before impending environmental legislation could take effect. New laws limiting where and what could be cut were enacted in order to preserve the few remaining stands of old growth trees and the plant and animal diversity of the Peninsula, and to protect the habitat of the tiny and reclusive northern spotted owl. Timber companies still push to cut as much as possible, and the old growth stands are still susceptible to the chainsaw, but tourist dollars have taken on a new importance to the region’s economy, and communities that once relied upon timber have had to diversify in order to survive.

With 95 percent of the old-growth forests felled in the Northwest, the timber companies have stepped up their logging in the Northern Rockies. They’re clear-cutting a place that is our Serengeti and erecting lumber company billboards that state the time of death—tombstones for the land.

Walking from the barren clear-cut border of the park into the densely forested ravines of the Elwha Valley takes you through an abrupt change in landscape and politics. Standing on the moist and matted forest floor among giant conifers it is quiet except for a plunging stream. Studying a water ouzel dipping in and out of the snow melt I find myself agreeing with English navigator John Meares that this is—home of the gods. Meares, sighting this area in 1788 named the highest peak Mount Olympus.

Moisture-laden Pacific winds on the western slopes of the Olympic Peninsula has produced one of the most luxuriant temperate-zone rain forests in the world.

Cutting Douglas fir and western red cedar trees over 50 feet in girth seems almost sacrilegious but that is what we have done leaving a very small population still in peril. Undisturbed for centuries we will once again see the forest heal and blossom. Timber science calls what they have done—management of a healthy forest. Have a financial advisor tell you to spend 95% of your retirement nest egg the first decade after quitting work and see if you are convinced that would be—management for a healthy future. --Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

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