SocraticGadfly: Olympic National Park — still a tenuous hold on the future?

September 24, 2021

Olympic National Park — still a tenuous hold on the future?

This is an expanded version of an already long Goodreads review of a book I saw while on vacation and got via interlibrary loan after I got home.

Olympic Battleground: The Power Politics of Timber PreservationOlympic Battleground: The Power Politics of Timber Preservation by Carsten Lien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A MUST READ for environmental types who are not familiar with the tenuous past of Olympic National Park, and continuing threats to it from the US Forest Service and possibly from within the National Park Service.

A MUST READ for environmental types who aren't familiar with the largely dirty history of the NPS, and not just in association with Olympic.

This is a fascinating, hugely informative and often HIGHLY infuriating look at the effort to create Olympic National Park, to make sure it was run by the Park Service and NOT the USFS, and then the battle to force the Park Service to act like the people then thought the Park Service would act.

As for the realities of the National Park Service? Having read one book about its history long ago, I had already known that Ken Burns presented a sanitized, even highly sanitized, history in his PBS miniseries. (What’s new? That’s de rigueur for him.)

But, I didn’t realize it was THIS bad. Stephen Mather and Horace Albright not only were development-first people, including hotels, roads, etc. inside parks, and shoot the omnivore and carnivore wildlife if they’re not made to do entertainment, but that they both internalized the Forest Service’s philosophy of “cut the damn trees,” including not wanting old-growth forests in national parks as not being worthy enough. This mentality infused the service for decades.

In addition, many of their underlings didn’t think USFS-run Olympic National Monument was worth of national park status. Others thought it would “compete” with Rainier.

(Many early NPS rangers and even superintendents may have hated "birders" almost as much as the USFS definitely did. Fortunately, the preservation of Olympic preserved plenty of trees for species like the chesnut-backed chickadee.)

Indeed, NPS FOUGHT AGAINST a “large park” when FDR was committed to making Olympic a national park, making it a large one, and taking it out of the hands of the Forest Service. It finally lost due to a public pressure campaign that was arguably even better than the one Dave Brower organized against BuRec to stop the Echo Park dam in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, hacks continued to run the NPS. Cammerer and Drury were both hacks. So was Connie Wirth. (And, contra one other reviewer on Yellow Satan, I knew Drury was a hack even before I read this book.)

AND, using a misinterpretation of the 1916 Organic Act, they let Olympic’s superintendent during the 1940s-1950s, Fred Overly, allow logging, and extensive logging, inside the park. At the same time, NPS leaders as well as the majority of folks at Olympic continued to entertain ideas of getting rid of one southeastern corner of the park, then building a road connecting Quinalt and Dosewallips rivers. (Drury was Overly's boss, and contra the mealy-mouthing of one reviewer, knew — eventually — what Overly was doing and decided "plausible deniability" was good.

(Imagine how the tree at left would look like as a dwarf, surrounded by some of 8-9 feet diameter.)

Yes, you read that right.

Other hacks, or worse?

The “Senator from Boeing,” Scoop Jackson, while still on the House side, never met a tree he didn’t think needed cutting, or a lying lumber company he didn’t think needed more trees to cut. He comes off as a serial liar on anything related to Olympic National Park when not being a hack. (Disgustingly, Wikipedia touts him as an environmentalist.)

It didn’t stop there. In the 1960s, Scoop Jackson, via his flunky Fred Overly, made another run at the west side trees. (Overly had been “exiled” to Great Smokies after the 1950s incident, but eventually got on top-level staff of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, an agency within Interior created in 1962 for rec planning for all Interior agencies. Why Jackson later was a co-author of NEPA, I have no idea. Guilt?

Sadly, the assaults continued even after the coastal strip was added. Overly, and others, tried to get a road built through it. Later, the offshore lands and tidewater were turned over to Fish and Wildlife, with its less restrictive regulations, and with a past and present history of hackery almost as bad as USFS and BLM.

(Imagine a beach like this not being part of Olympic National Park. Imagine that it did have its originally-dedicated level of protection, rather than now using that of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.)

After that? The Park Service opposed original wilderness preservation for most the park. It wanted 20-acre carveouts for hostels and food on a regular basis.

Also a hack, and for something besides Japanese internment? When Newton Drury was fired as NPS director, word leaked that Earl Warren was looking at hiring him to run California parks. All the people that did the initial PR push to protect Olympic in the 1930s and get FDR to make it a park, and that revived themselves in the 1940s against NPS’ attempt to give part of the park back to USFS, wrote Warren. He ignored them.

Near the end, Carsten Lien shows that the “F” management of Olympic by the NPS carried into the 1980s and beyond. In 1988, the idea of breaching and removing the Elwha dams was first raised. The Park Service refused to back it, until the public pushed enough that NPS flipped, as part of what Lien calls its conflict avoidance management strategy. Overall, he says between the lines it looks good only because it stands in comparison to USFS, BLM and FWS.

Lien concludes the book with both fears and recommendations for the future. The recommendations have generally not been followed. There’s still no ranger station marked on maps in the Bogachiel Valley. (I recently hiked the trail from Forest Service trailhead to approximately the park boundary.) An ideal location, per NPS map, would be a ranger station at the junction of the Bogachiel and Sitkum/Calawah trails.

As far as I know, dual-use NPS/USFS visitor centers still exist.

Carsten Lien, with whom I was unfamiliar before, was a long-time activist in The Mountaineers and its president in 1988. He was one of the seasonal rangers in the 1950s who blew the whistle on Fred Overly.

Also at the end of the book, Lien presents three scenarios for the future of the park, and somewhat for the future of the Park Service. The third is more prescriptive than descriptive. He suggests something like a U.S. Wilderness Service to take the highest-level parks away from the Park Service. He's probably right on the prescription, as well as probably right in noting that's only got about a 10 percent chance of reality. If I thought it could be pulled off, I would totally support this. The current Park Service looks good only compared to the land-raping of BLM, the tree-raping of USFS (which has occasionally gotten better), and the wildlife-strangling of FWS.

That said, we should also admit progress. I saw this at the Port Angeles Visitor Center bookstore. According to this piece in National Parks Travelers, a decade ago, Lien's book was kept behind the counter like pornography, if available at all to visitors.

(Update, Sept. 24: I forgot that six years, ago, in the run-up to the NPS centennial, I had tackled various other shortcomings.) 

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