June 11, 1998

Diverse ecosystems and untamed wilds make Olympic National Park extra special


Some suggest Olympic National Park is really three parks in one, because of its wild ocean shore, glacier-clad peaks and long, dark valleys of giant trees.

But those who know it well believe that notion might not do the park justice.

To fully appreciate the diversity of the park President Franklin Roosevelt created with a pen stroke 60 years ago June 29, a visitor must experience several distinct natural phenomena.

For sure, you must stand between driftwood and surf, gazing past sea stacks toward the ocean, listening to the longest stretch of undeveloped seashore in the continental United States.

You must also stand near a mountaintop and ponder the sharp and jagged silhouettes of the geologically young Olympic Mountains, and walk the valleys to behold behemoth red cedar, hemlock, fir and spruce.

But you must also watch for some of the healthiest native populations of fish and wildlife anywhere: thriving herds of Olympic elk and blacktailed deer, abundant populations of black bears and cougars, and the Pacific Northwest's healthiest wild salmon and steelhead runs.

You must witness the myriad of colors on slopes blazing with wildflower blossoms, some found nowhere else and none so spectacular as the eastern Olympics' often 20-foot-tall native rhododendrons.

And you must experience the water born of copious precipitation: long meandering rivers on the west side, short tumbling streams on the east, spectacular waterfalls and classic alpine lakes tucked into glacial basins.

"The park protects the heart of one of the most productive and biologically rich and diverse ecosystems on the West Coast," says Tim McNulty of Sequim, author of "Olympic National Park; A Natural History Guide" and vice president of the watchdog group Olympic Park Associates.

"Go south and you don't see a lot of wild rivers with healthy salmon runs, you don't see low elevation old-growth valleys with a full complement of wildlife, and alpine areas that have survived since the Pleistocene with native plant communities intact. I've written about national parks all over the country and I really haven't experienced anything like this."

It is of global significance, as noted by its 1981 designation as a United Nations World Heritage Site, a distinction shared with such other national jewels as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Everglades.

Visit either of the park's two most popular spots -- Hurricane Ridge and the Hoh Rain Forest -- and you're almost as likely to see a person from Italy or Japan as Olympia or Seattle.

"It is a wonderful area," says Uwe Mandel of Frankfurt, Germany, encountered taking in the stunning vistas at Hurricane Ridge recently, having hiked the Hoh the day before. "I had heard about the park in Germany, and that it had a rain forest. It was great, a unique experience."

Says David Morris, the park superintendent since 1994: "World Heritage Site designation is kind of like the Nobel Prize of natural resources and we feel it is very worthy and special."

Olympic is near the top of many Americans' lists of great national parks. Newlyweds Royal and Jane Street of Catoosa, Okla., recently visited several on their honeymoon, first stopping at Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Sequoia.

"This feels so much older," Royal said while standing among giant Douglas firs after visiting Sol Duc Falls on the Sol Duc River Trail. "Even though Yosemite's trees are even bigger than these, this feels so huge and ancient."

However, it is such qualities, coupled with the park's popularity, that present Olympic National Park managers with their greatest challenges. Last year, about 5 million people visited the park, a staggering million more than the annual average.

In many cases, such impact conflicts with the U.S. Park Service's mandate to protect the natural features that make a national park special.

All overnight hikers must now obtain a wilderness permit. And in several popular backcountry areas -- including Seven Lakes Basin and Flapjack Lakes in the high country and Ozette beach loop on the wilderness shore -- trampling of vegetation has been so great that the number of overnight hikers is limited.

"Especially for those of us living on the peninsula who have been able to hike wherever we want to and whenever we want to, it hasn't been greeted with enthusiasm by all parties," says McNulty. "But looking at the big picture, with 3 (million) or 4 million visitors and 900,000 acres to preserve, there's no other way."

Superintendent Morris says the park is now developing a wilderness plan that will establish "limits of acceptable change."

"The first priority we have is to protect the resource," Morris says. "I liken the park to an opera house. When every seat is full, we're going to have to recognize the opera house is not going to take any more people. We're starting to acknowledge these fragile areas can only take so much."

Morris also acknowledges that within the next two years, the park will begin examining ways to reduce the number of cars in popular "frontcountry" areas. A restrictive plan using tour buses was recently approved at Yosemite.

Perhaps even more controversial than quotas have been the backcountry fees instituted last year. To register for a backcountry permit, hikers are charged $5, good for up to 14 days. Each hiker must also pay $2 per night. An annual backcountry pass is available for $30.

Although 90 percent of the money raised is used to maintain trails, many feel strongly that the public already owns the national parks and should have free access. Others charge that fees penalize the poor.

Morris notes that Congress made the decision to reduce general appropriations for national park and national forest trails, and that those without the money can work 16 hours on a trail crew and get a free annual backcountry pass.

McNulty agrees: "Probably the biggest problem facing the park is the total cutback in funding. Congress is walking away from its responsibility. The park is having to go begging."

Most of the other issues faced by managers and visitors alike deal directly with the park's abundant wildlife, or once-abundant wildlife in two cases.

The loudest public bleating has been over the park's proposal to eradicate mountain goats. Park biologists claim they were introduced and not native, and that they trample fragile alpine vegetation and even threaten rare native plants.

Their preferred option is to shoot the goats from helicopters. But a solution is on hold, due to fierce public and political opposition.

"It's a very hard sell to suggest we can just go out and eliminate them," Morris says.

Also setting off howls is a plan to reintroduce the gray wolf, which the park is studying at the urging of U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, the Bremerton Democrat who represents the Olympic Peninsula. Native to park lands, the wolf was eliminated earlier this century by bounty hunting.

Morris says reintroduction "is certainly consistent with Park Service policy."

Also pending is congressional action on a park proposal to remove two dams from the Elwha River to restore once-bountiful runs of salmon that included 100-pound chinook.

More immediate concerns for the visitor include bold black bears and raccoons. No injuries have been reported, but hikers on two sections of the wilderness beach strip, totaling about 30 miles, must now carry their food in plastic buckets with snap-on lids. The coastal raccoons have become adept at getting into food stored in most other ways.

And an eight-mile stretch of the Elwha River Trail is closed to camping -- backpackers may hike through -- because of two incidents of bears taking food.

To those who love the park, such constraints are a small price.

"You're out there with the wildlife, you're part of the food web," McNulty says. "For me, that's part of the magic."

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