Olympic National Park / by Alexis Fairbanks

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

Park’s boundaries.

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

positive.

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.