By Patricia Morrison Coate
An emerald treasure trove, a priceless ecological profusion of flora and fauna — and the back yard and backbone of the Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic National Park’s 922,650 acres and Olympic National Forest’s 632,300 acres dominate Clallam and Jefferson counties and attract visitors worldwide. What is it about our back yard of 1,400 square miles that entices residents and tourists alike to explore and embrace it?
Tim McNulty knows. He’s worked in the mountains and forest since 1972, planting and thinning trees, being involved in watershed restoration, selective logging and backcountry trail work. A Sequim-based poet, conservationist and nature writer, McNulty’s “Olympic National Park, A Natural History” earned a Washington Governor’s Writers Award in 1997.
“To me, Olympic Natural Park represents one of the great natural mountain, forest and river preserves left on earth. We are extremely fortunate that this place was so remote that it was largely left alone by the assault of industry that crossed the country in the 19th century,” McNulty said, sitting at his kitchen table with a panoramic view of the Olympics behind him. “Beginning in the 20th century, people realized what had been lost elsewhere in the U.S. — other forests had been cut by the time ONP was created in the 1930s — and they realized an original old forest was something really worth conserving.”
Despite 85 percent of the low-elevation old-growth forests on the peninsula being harvested by the 1990s, ONP and ONF still provide forests of spectacular size and diversity, McNulty said.
“They’re also part of an ecosystem that’s not an island but has the ecological diversity of one because of the glaciers that pushed through (isolating the peninsula for thousands of years). The wildlife and free flowing rivers full of salmon ran from the mountains to the sea. There were alpine meadows and an incredible, undeveloped marine coastline. So the Olympics had it all!”
In 1976 UNESCO named Olympic National Park as an International Biosphere Reserve, and in 1981 it was designated a World Heritage site.
McNulty said when he arrived on the peninsula in the early 1970s, he was mesmerized by the bounty the park offered.
“One of the first things I found exploring was ONP had all the things I loved about New England’s natural areas — mountains, rivers, lakes, shorelines plus the primeval and cultural richness of Native American tribes still living in their ancestral villages,” said the Connecticut native. “After school, I traveled in much of the West and nowhere did I find a natural wilderness and wildness like I found here.”
From a regional aspect, ONP is the only example of a lowland valley forest with rich, deep soils, from northern California up to southeast-ern Alaska, McNulty observed. “ONP is the most important salmon preserve on the West Coast with a dozen major rivers for spawning habitat of 70 unique stocks of salmon and steelhead. Stocks are part of a run of fish keeping to one specific watershed at one particular time.”
In a reverential tone, McNulty called the wild salmon runs in the park’s rivers an “irreplaceable thing. Salmon stocks have been lost up and down the coast — ONP is one of the last preserves.”
Before the Elwha River was dammed between 1910-1913, it hosted all five species of Pacific salmon — chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink — and McNulty said he hopes with the river’s restoration slated for 2009, by demolishing the dams, those species will return.
“Geographically, the Olympics are a wonderful little accident of evolution,” McNulty enthused. “Everybody thinks of ONP as the Hoh Rain Forest, but as soon as weather comes (east) over Bailey Range, rainfall drops from more than 200 inches annually at Mount Olympus to 30 in the Dungeness foothills and below 17 in on the Sequim prairie. Low rainfall fosters plant and animal communities that have more in common with the Rocky Mountains than the Pacific coast. The northeast Olympic’s sub-alpine communities are closer to Montana in climate and diversity and nurtured unique species on the peninsula. Eight plants grow nowhere else in the world.”
They are Piper’s bellflower, Flett’s fleabane, Flett’s violet, Thompson’s wandering fleabane, Olympic mountain rockmat, Olympic mountain milkvetch, Olympic mountain groundsel and Olympic mountain synthyris.
According to the Center for Plant Conservation Web site, the Olympic Peninsula makes up only 8 percent of Washington’s land but contains 27 percent of the state’s rare flora. ONP is blessed with an even higher concentration of rare plants — 19 percent of the rare plants in the park are found in only 2 percent of the state.
To differentiate flora and fauna only found on the peninsula from the rest of the Washington, a number of plants and animals sport the moniker “Olympic,” as the aforementioned flowers. Endemic mountain dwellers are the Olympic marmot, Olympic yellow-pine chipmunk, Olympic snow mole, Olympic Mazama pocket gopher and Olympic ermine. Fish species include the Olympic mud minnow, Beardslee rainbow trout and Crescenti trout.
The peninsula’s geography and climate, formed by the glaciers that isolated it from the rest of the landmass, allowed for unique species to develop and adapt.
“We are really lucky to be living here with access to hundreds of miles of hiking trails,” McNulty said. “Year-round there’s hiking on the Dungeness Spit and lowland forests and in the spring, there are valley hikes up the Dungeness and Gray Wolf rivers. In the summer, meadows with incredible wildflowers blanket the high country. We have the benefit of a healthy, productive ecosystem — eagles we see year-round and in the fall snow, the elks move down. We are so lucky to have the elk.”
“The park’s challenges have been continuous all the way along,” McNulty said, referencing the political struggles for decades between logging interests and conservationists in the early 20th century to get the park established. “Since then the challenges have been attempts to shrink the park boundaries to allow more logging. I think there’s also been local opposition to attempt to expand the park to include special habitat for species near the boundaries.”
McNulty said the biggest challenge will be to recover the threatened and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, a sea bird that nests in mossy old-growth forests, Steller’s sea lion, Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal chum, Lake Ozette sockeye, wild salmon, steelhead and bull trout. There are 45 plant and animal candidates being investigated by the state and federal government as sensitive species or species of concern. McNulty lauds the spectacular conservation successes in the park — the return of peregrine falcons and bald eagles — and efforts under way to reintroduce fishers, a member of the weasel family, which were hunted to extinction in the park by 1969.
“They’ve had wonderful success reintroducing the wolf in Yellowstone Park and they could be introduced here once the political will is here,” McNulty said, noting that the park’s elk have no predators to challenge them. He quoted Ed Bangs, a friend and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist on nature’s balancing act: “Elk’s speed, strength, agility — all those are the result of the predation by wolves. You can’t say you love elk if you don’t love wolves.”
McNulty sums up his ardor for this wondrous ecosystem — the back yard of all who live on and visit Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest — as the last lines in his book: “It occurred to me that the seasonal pulse at the heart of these mountains was not unlike the beat of our own hearts. It infuses the land with vitality, beauty and grace. Maybe that is why human hearts have responded to this place so passionately. Maybe its future and our own are deeply joined.”