Written by Adam Fairbanks
Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks
Olympic National Park, located in the northwestern corner of Washington
State, is 922,651 acres of incredibly diverse land and water. The park contains three
distinct ecosystems—glacier capped mountains descend into lush, old-growth
temperate rain forests that finally yield to a roiling Pacific coast—which are all
interconnected by over 3,500 miles of glacier-fed streams and rivers. This multi-
tiered Park is made up of over 95% wilderness where twenty-four endemic plant
and animal species exist, meaning they live exclusively within Olympic National
Our first hike in Olympic was a grueling one. The Switchback Trail to
Klahanne Ridge took Alexis and myself two hours to complete. It was a 1500’ climb
in the space of 1.5 miles. The air was thin and as Alexis had pointed out to me days
before in Yosemite, the earth’s gravitational pull on things is actually stronger at this
altitude: 6050’ above sea level at our highest point. We marched
switchbacks—steep sections of trail that double back on themselves every fifteen to
thirty yards—up and down the mountain to get to and from the ridge. Alexis and I
were breathing heavily, our leg muscles were tired, and I, at least, was having
doubts about whether this trail was going to be worth it or not. When we finally
reached Klahanne Ridge and looked down into the basin that was encircled in steep
skyward reaching cliffs adorned with fields of snow, we were awestruck.
Alexis and I gazed down into the massive cirque—a semi-circular bowl
shaped valley—that opened up beneath us. The cirque had been carved into the
mountain by a glacier that had slowly flowed down its side for centuries, melting
into cracks in the rock then freezing and expanding, slowly carving a path down the
mountainside. Around us, steep skree slopes rose to meet the solid rock that jutted
skyward and made up the tops of the mountains. Below us, a lush valley forest of
evergreen trees periodically revealed itself as clouds slowly rolled up from the
valley towards us and then dissipated into thin air. While a field of snow about fifty
meters across resting on the slopes was quite a site for two southerners in mid July,
Alexis and I both knew it was nothing but a pitiful remnant compared to the glacier
that had once carved this valley.
In the past century or so, but particularly since the 80’s and increasingly
onward, Olympic National Park and many other sites around the world have been
experiencing glacier shrinkage. Olympic National Park’s glaciers are particularly
sensitive to climate change due to their low elevation and proximity to the coast; the
Park has lost eighty-two of its glaciers since 1980 and experienced a total loss of
34% of its previous glacial extent. Glaciers are excellent indicators of climate
change, and Blue Glacier in Olympic is one of the most studied glaciers in the world.
The Park’s main glacier receded 325’ between 1995 and 2006 that resulted a loss of
178’ of thickness at its terminus from 1987-2009.
High in the mountains the lakes and rivers that are first formed by the
glaciers are unthinkable shades of clear blue. They calmly ripple in the slight
breezes that penetrate the mountainous walls that surround them. The color is a
result of incredibly fine sediments suspended in the water that are created by the
glaciers as they slowly grind down the mountains they reside on. These tiny
particles are carried down into the lakes and rivers with the glacial melt, and absorb
every color of light except for the radiant shades of blue. Recently hikers to these
high altitude lakes have noticed a dimming in their spectacular colors. This is due to
the fact that as the glaciers slowly disappear they stop grinding the fine sediments
into the water. As a result the lakes are losing their dramatic colors.
The disappearance of glaciers in the Olympic peninsula would have dramatic
effects on the ecosystems below them. While the peninsula is known for its rainfall,
the summers, like much of the west coast, can be quite dry. This will pose a problem
once the glaciers are gone. Glacier and snow melt feed the 3500 miles of rivers,
lakes, and streams in Olympic during the summer months when their fresh water
isn’t locked away as ice.
The loss of these rivers and lakes will have a profound effect on some of the
largest salmon spawning grounds and bull trout habitats in the lower forty-eight
states. Six different species of Pacific salmon use the peninsula’s rivers as spawning
grounds. After three years at sea, mature salmon battle their way upstream through
the currents of the exact rivers they were born in with the singular purpose of laying
and fertilizing their eggs before their death. Without water provided by glacier and
snow melt, the rivers, and the salmon, will disappear.
The annual salmon migrations also play a key role in nourishing much of the
Park’s wildlife. Apex predators such as black bears and bald eagles consume
salmon, while their fry—the newborn salmon that spend a year in growing in the
rivers before their journey to the Pacific—nourish predatory insects, amphibians,
and larger fish.
Air and water quality are also a concern for Olympic National Park. Chemical
and metal particles blow on Pacific winds from heavily industrialized countries in
Asia such as China. Trace amounts of mercury and pesticides are being deposited in
Olympic’s lakes and rivers and can accumulate to dangerous levels in the bodies of
fish and other marine life. Local mining and the increase in park traffic and urban
sprawl in areas around the park are also creating a growing ozone concern.
While Olympic National Park is facing several pressing threats from climate
change and urban encroachment that desperately need solutions, the Park has also
been a model for solving problems that face many other National and State Parks.
Fishers, small mammals that resemble ferrets, were hunted to near extinction in the
Olympic Peninsula over a century ago by trappers who relished them for their dark
coats. In addition to over trapping, habitat fragmentation as Washington State
developed led to their endangered status in 1998.
Seeking to restore fishers to a protected habitat within Washington, Olympic
National Park released twelve fishers from British Columbia into the Park in 2008.
Over the next three years, seventy-eight more were released into Olympic’s
wilderness. Each fisher was equipped with a radio transmitter that monitored the
animal’s movements, survival rate, and reproduction rate. After several years most
of the transmitters ran out of power or fell off, but the Park staff continued to
monitor the animals using hair snares. Baited with chicken and lined with rough
wire, the snares would allow fishers to scurry in and out retrieving their morsel of
chicken without harm. All that would be left behind were tufts of fur. Biologists
could then analyze the DNA in the fur to track which fishers were where in the Park.
The reintegration program saw wild success; fishers repopulated the peninsula
quickly and found territory both within and beyond Olympic’s protected borders.
Olympic National Park was also the site of a major dam removal project; it
was the first and largest of its kind attempted in a National Park. The Elwha Dam
and the Glines Canyon Dam were placed in the Elwha River nearly a century ago,
and have been disrupting the ecosystem of the river and its estuary ever since. The
dams blocked just over ninety miles of river, preventing Pacific salmon from
traveling up stream to their spawning grounds. In addition to choking the river the
dams had caused significant damage to the estuary at the mouth of the Elwha River
where it meets the Pacific by trapping over nineteen million cubic meters of
sediment, nutrients, and wood.
Dam removal began September 19 th , 2011, and was completed in August of
2014. The mouth of the Elwha rose over 10’, and the tremendous amount of
trapped sediment flowed out into the Pacific. The nearshore environment began a
drastic turnaround. As locked up sediments, nutrients, and wood flowed out to the
ocean the habitat began to rebuild almost instantly. Within weeks, salmon, herring,
and smelt returned to the waters near the mouth of the Elwha River, and with them
the sea bird and sea mammal population. A sand beach is also developing, replacing
the rounded cobbles and providing a habitat for Dungeness crabs and clams. The
only negative impact witnessed was the burial of a small kelp bed that had arisen
thanks to the starved estuary, but overall the impacts have been promising and
While Olympic National Park is making progress on preserving, restoring,
and maintaining its unique environments, there are still factors threating the park
that are out of its control alone. Rising temperatures threaten to melt its life
supporting glaciers. An ever-increasing presence of air pollution brings heavy
metals, ozone, and toxins into the Park on the winds that also bring its famed rains.
Our National Parks, while doing everything they can to preserve their environments
locally, need change on a global scale in order to maintain their breathtaking
ecosystems for the generations to come.