As it happened, it wouldn't be a day for nostalgia or for seeing much of anything. On reaching Hurricane Hill, we found that the Olympic Mountains were obscured by smoke from the Paradise Fire. Meanwhile, looking north toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Salish Sea, all that we could see was an amber-lit deep haze. More smoke, in other words, coming from more than 70 wildfires burning in British Columbia, Canada. As I write this, there are 14 active wildfires in Washington and five in Oregon, while British Columbia recently registered 185 of them.
So if you happen to live in the drought-stricken Southwest and are dreaming of relocating to the cool, moist Pacific Northwest, think again. On the Olympic Peninsula, it's haze to the horizon and the worst drought since 1895.
A Rainforest In A National Park
For visitors to the Olympic Peninsula, it seems obvious that a temperate rainforest -- itself a kind of natural wonder -- should be in a national park. As it happens, getting it included proved to be one of the most drawn-out battles in American conservation history, which makes seeing it destroyed all the more bitter.
Two centuries ago, expanses of coastal temperate rainforests stretched from northern California to southern Alaska. Today, only about 4% of the California redwoods remain, while in Oregon and Washington, the forests are less than 10% of what they once were. Still, even in a degraded state, this eco-region, including British Columbia and Alaska, contains more than a quarter of the world's remaining coastal temperate rainforest.
In the era of climate change, this matters, because the Pacific coastal rainforest is so productive that it has a much higher biomass than comparable areas of any tropical rainforest. In translation: the Pacific rainforests store an impressive amount of carbon in their wood and soil and so contribute to keeping the climate cool. However, when that wood goes up in flames, as it has recently, it releases the stored carbon into the atmosphere at a rapid rate. The massive plumes of smoke we saw at Hurricane Ridge offer visual testimony to a larger ecological disaster to come.
The old-growth rainforest that stretches across the western valleys of the Olympic National Park is its crown jewel. As UNESCO wrote in recognizing the park as a World Heritage Site, it includes "the best example of intact and protected temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest." In those river valleys, annual rainfall is measured not in inches but in feet, and it's the wettest place in the continental United States. There you will find living giants: a Sitka spruce more than 1,000 years old; Douglas fir more than 300 feet tall; mountain hemlock at 150 feet; yellow cedars that are nearly 12 feet in diameter; and a western red cedar whose circumference is more than 60 feet.
The rainforest is home to innumerable species, most of which remain hidden from sight. Still, while walking its trails, you can sometimes hear the bugle or get a glimpse of Roosevelt elk amid moss-draped, fog-shrouded bigleaf maples. (The largest herd of wild elk in North America finds refuge here.) And when you do, you'll know that you've entered a Tolkienesque landscape. Those elk, by the way, were named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt who, in 1909, protected 615,000 acres of the peninsula, as Mount Olympus National Monument.
Why not include a rainforest in a national park? That was the question being asked at the turn of the twentieth century and Henry Graves, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, answered it in definitive fashion this way: "It would be great mistake to include in parks great bodies of commercial timber."
Despite the power of the timber industry and the Forest Service, however, five committed citizens with few resources somehow managed to protect the peninsula's last remaining rainforest. "They did it by involving the public," environmentalist and former park ranger Carsten Lien writes in his Olympic Battleground: Creating and Defending Olympic National Park. He adds, "Preserving the environment through direct citizen activism, as we know it today, had its beginnings in the Olympic National Park battle."
In 1938, the national monument was converted to Olympic National Park and a significant amount of rainforest was included. As Lien would discover in the late 1950s, however, the Park Service, despite its rhetoric of stewardship, continued to let timber interests log there. Today, such practices are long past, though commercial logging continues to play a significant part in the economy of the peninsula in national, state, and private forests.
A Fire That Just Won't Stop
Once the fire began, I just couldn't keep away. On a rainy July 10th, for instance, listening to James Taylor's Fire and Rain, I drove toward the Queets River Valley to learn more about the Paradise Fire so that I could "talk about things to come."
At the Kalaloch campground, I asked the first park employee I ran into whether the rain, then coming down harder, might extinguish the fire? "It will slow down the fire's spread," she told me, "but won't put it out. There's too much fuel in that valley."
The next morning, with the rain still falling steadily and the fire still burning, I stood at the trailhead to the valley thinking about what another park employee had told me. "The sad thing," she said, "is that the fire is burning in the most primitive of the three river valleys." In other words, I was standing mere miles away from the destruction of one of the most primeval parts of the forest. As Queets was also one of the more difficult locations to visit, less attention was being given to the fire than if, say, it were in the always popular Hoh valley.
In a sense, the Paradise Fire has been burning out of sight of the general public. Information about it has been coming from press releases and updates prepared by the National Park Service. Though it is doing a good job of sharing information, environmental disasters and their lessons often sink in most deeply when they are observed and absorbed into collective memory via the stories, fears, and hopes of ordinary citizens.