GUEST OPINION — A planetary legacy: Olympic National Park turns 75 years old

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ALMOST 75 YEARS ago, on June 29, 1938, President Franklin D. Roose­velt signed the bill creating Olympic National Park.

With this act Americans embarked on something new in land conservation: They created a wilderness preserve large enough to protect intact old-growth forest communities and the forest-dependent wildlife they contained.

Olympic National Park set a new standard for ecosystem conservation in America, and it marked a turning point in wildland protection.

By the mid-1930s, the contentious argument over the creation of Olympic National Park had reached a stalemate.

National conservation groups proposed a large park that included some of the Peninsula's magnificent, temperate old-growth forests.

Government agencies and local business interests supported a smaller park devoid of any commercial-grade forests or potential mineral lands.

A half-dozen park bills had been introduced over the years.

But the U.S. Forest Service held doggedly to its management of the Olympic forests, and the National Park Service seemed content to manage the small Mount Olympus National Monument in the heart of the range.

Nationally, it was a different story.

In the light of rampant forest destruction in the Appalachians and throughout the upper Midwest, pressure mounted to preserve some of the last lowland virgin forests in the Northwest.

Willard Van Name of the American Museum of Natural History framed the issue powerfully:

“The Peninsula affords the last opportunity for preserving any adequate large remnants of the wonderful primeval forests . . . which everywhere have been or are being logged off to the very stick.”

National and statewide advocates pressed fervently for a large park.

Their goal was to preserve much of the remaining temperate rain-forest valleys of the Olympics and the winter habitat they provided for Roosevelt elk (named for an earlier president) and a wealth of related wildlife.

Wisely, they took their cause directly to President Roosevelt.

In September 1937, FDR decided to visit the Olympic Peninsula, view the proposed park and if possible break the logjam.

At a stop attended by thousands in front of the courthouse in Port Angeles, he promised the crowd:

“You can count on my help in getting that national park, not only because we need it . . . but for a whole lot of young people who are going to come along in the next hundred years of America.”

That evening at his cabin at Singer's Tavern (now Lake Crescent Lodge), FDR told a small gathering of
Park Service and Forest Service executives, congressmen and senators:

“You are not allowing a large enough national park. I am thinking 50 years ahead.”

He gave voice to the national consensus that the remaining original forest is “much more valuable for its recreational use than for lumber.”

When Roosevelt signed the bill creating Olympic National Park the following year, it was a major victory for conservationists.

The act authorized FDR to add significant lowland valley forests in the Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets and Quinault valleys to the new park.

The bill also contained, at the president's insistence, provisions to add the spectacular wilderness coast and the Queets River corridor.

To development interests who still hoped to see the new park “improved” with additional roads, lodges, resorts, and chalets, FDR's secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, reaffirmed Congress' intent:

“In the case of a wilderness area like Olympic National Park, the solution can be stated in four words,” Ickes said.

“Keep it a wilderness.”

In the many conservation battles that have ensued in the Olympics — from attempts to remove west-side valleys from the park to freeing the Elwha River from century-old dams — the national significance of Olympic has carried the day.

Today we celebrate one of the richest and most ecologically significant wilderness preserves on the planet.


TIM MCNULTY is a poet, conservationist and author of Olympic National Park:
A Natural History
and numerous other books.

Olympic National Park: A Natural History, which received the Washington Governor's Writers Award,
has just been reissued in a revised edition by the University of Washington Press.

McNulty lives with his family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains outside of Sequim.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is accompanied by a sidebar today, "Anniversary Events Next Week for Olympic National Park."

Want to know more about Olympic National Park on its Diamond Anniversary?

A special section celebrating the park and its creation June 29, 1938, will be part of the print edition of the Peninsula Daily News this coming Sunday (June 23).

Last modified: June 21. 2013 2:09PM
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