A Retrospective of the Olympic Wilderness and Wilderness Management, Part I

A Retrospective of the Olympic Wilderness and Wilderness Management—Part 1

Andrew Ackerman

April 29, 2017

I have considered myself a student of wild places for over three decades. As a teen, my curiosity was simply a passion for the unspoiled, a desire to explore and learn about new places, and the personal freedom that came with it. There was also the physical challenge, testing my limits. Wild places satisfied all elements of my being -mind, body, and spirit.

Into the Rainforest
In the spring of 1993, I landed a job working in Olympic National Park as a Student Conservation Association resource assistant ranger. I was to be a climbing ranger in the Hoh Rainforest. By April, I was so eager to get to my new position in Washington State that I left my home in Vermont a month early on foot, and let the open road pull me westward. After a month on the road, and over a dozen rides, I arrived on the Olympic peninsula in late May. The Olympic Wilderness-- -95% of the park (870,000 acres of roadless forest, mountains, and Pacific coastline)-- -was just five years young that spring.

Franklin Roosevelt first designated the Olympics a national park in 1938 as unregulated old growth logging and elk hunting had begun to kick into high gear. By the time I arrived in 1993, evidence of almost a century of intensive logging on the peninsula was palpable. The last few decades had been aided by mechanical advances capable of turning thousands of acres of ancient old growth ecosystems into a barren and charred landscape in a matter of a few years. However, there was also a sense that the rate of logging was not sustainable. It appeared that local logging families and industry advocates were slowly coming to the realization that the remaining old-growth timber on the peninsula was limited and that the federal government was serious about preserving some vestiges of the remaining old growth forests for habitat.

While the scale and totality of the clear-cutting was shocking, once inside the park boundary I discovered a radically different environment. Entering the Hoh Rainforest feels like entering a primeval and magical landscape. In the early 90s, park managers and veteran NPS staff were very proud of the newly minted Olympic Wilderness-- and rightfully so. The integrity, diversity, and uniqueness of the ecosystem was unparalleled in the NPS and perhaps throughout the entire US wilderness preservation system. In addition, the NPS had fully committed funds for a variety of restoration and visitor use programs. The park staff consisted of a diverse group of resource experts and dedicated backcountry specialists that numbered between 50-60 individuals spread evenly throughout the largely roadless park wilderness. There was a definite optimism among those of us working for the park.

Within weeks of arriving in the Olympics I was in love. The kind of punch-drunk, deer-in- the- headlights, kind of love. I was enthralled with the 300' tall, thousand year-old trees, the giant mosses, the miles-long glaciers and snowcapped peaks; the wild Pacific Ocean coast, rivers, and the non-human inhabitants—from the regal Roosevelt elk to the slimy Banana slugs! Only a mile from the Hoh Visitor Center the forest enveloped me, and most sights and sounds of the modern world disappeared completely.

And then there was the rain. Because I knew that thousands of years of it—that constant, cool misty rain—was what made the forest flourish, I fell in love with that too. Throughout that spring and summer, more often than not, I awoke to a cool and light rain-mist in the morning, drip, drip, drip.  Such was the cycle of water, that when the sun did shine everything sparkled, the forest was that much greener and lush, that much clearer to the observer. That summer the natural sounds in the Hoh were phenomenal, as if the abundance of life in the forest was humming a constant and varied song. This was over a decade before Gordon Hempton's One-Square-Inch-of-Silence-movement and before the NPS Natural Sounds Program began their research and public awareness campaign, back when natural sounds in the Hoh were very high quality, but also taken for granted by many.

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