'Re-inhabitation' revisited

The new invasion of the rural Northwest

 

SEQUIM, Wash. - Driving home one night not long ago, I spotted the glimmer of a fire high on a ridge of second-growth timber. It's not unusual for hunters to camp on logging roads in the foothills, and I didn't give it much thought.

A few days later, I glanced up at the same spot in daylight and saw the stick frame of a new house, a large one, rising over the cutover hills like an Italian villa. The following spring, its two-story wall of glass reflected the afternoon sunlight like a lighthouse marking some new shore of civilization.

My neighbor's was not the first incursion into the logged-over foothills of Washington's Olympic Mountains, but it signaled a new and irreversible encroachment into a nearly wild habitat. The foothills here, as throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, are important transitional habitat between the coastal lowlands' paved world of cars, dogs and real estate franchises, and the forested mountain, where elk, cougar, owl and bear still thrive.

Like many of the problems facing a rapidly urbanizing Northwest, this one has roots in the economic policies of the Reagan era. As the spate of leveraged buyouts in the mid-1980s sent timber companies careening down the muddy slopes of multinational control, rural landscapes were transformed overnight.

A frenzy of overcutting reminiscent of railroad-logging in the '20s and '30s ravaged the woods like a blight. Roads were carved deep into the foothills of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains, and forests were "liquidated" to pay off spiraling junk bonds.

Since the new corporate foresters - insurance companies, investment brokers, Asian trade consortiums - had little interest in long-term forestry, lands were minimally replanted to meet legal requirements and maintain tax shelters. Then they were dumped on the market for cheap.

Most of those living and working in the rural Northwest 15 years ago were not in the market for thousand-acre hillsides of stumps and failing log roads. But speculators were. Vast tracts of logged-over forest land passed back and forth among them, accruing modest paper profits until the market was ripe.

Washington's population grew by more than 700,000 during the 1980s, most of that growth in the Puget Sound basin. By the early 1990s, surging growth filled suburban valleys and uplands and snarled the freeways.

Developers raised their eyes to the newly re-greening hills. And they saw that it was good.

We were the first colonizers

In retrospect, I see that I was part of an earlier invasion. Many of us who moved "back to the land" in the late 1960s and early '70s were also fleeing overcrowding of one stripe or another.

The rural Northwest offered urban exiles an opportunity to live simply and cheaply and a chance to reconnect with seasonal rhythms. Land was inexpensive, rentals were plentiful, and work - if you weren't averse to physical labor - was relatively easy to find.

Many of us moving to the Coast Range and Cascade foothills saw ourselves as "re-inhabitants." We carved small niches within the larger economy of industrial logging, commercial fishing, and agriculture. We planted trees and thinned the second-growth forests; we waded into watershed and salmon restoration projects, and trolled for salmon in refurbished fishing boats. Organic farming sprouted on abandoned homesteads, woodworking shops breathed life into sagging barns; food co-ops and crafts shops refurbished storefronts.

In a romantic echo of the old Wobbly motto, we began the work of building a new bioregional economy within the shell of the old. That we didn't see the thickness or resilience of that shell, I suppose, was symptomatic of the times.

Environmental politics is a key part of involvement with any place, and early on I threw in with wild country. The untracked mountains, forests and wilderness coast of the Olympic Peninsula is where I found my voice as a writer, and the Olympic wildlands continue to nourish my commitment to grassroots activism.

I count myself lucky. The beauty of the peninsula has given preservation efforts on federal lands here a national constituency. But not so the state- and industry-owned forest lands that surround it. On state and local levels, timber interests hold most of the cards.

Following passage of a vivisectional Washington state Forest Practice Act in 1974, local conservation efforts focused on maintaining buffers for streams to protect salmon, wetlands and shorelines, and ensuring that logging roads didn't end up in the creek following winter rains.

But any discussion of wilderness or old-growth habitat protection, migratory wildlife corridors or even selective logging on industry-owned lands was whistling in the wind. We might as well have asked timber managers to take fistfuls of cash and fling them throughout the woods.

The thorny issue of log exports, which is central to any discussion of sustainable forestry in the Northwest, was simply off the table.

Negotiations between new settlers and their corporate neighbors were curt and frustrating. If we didn't want timber companies spraying herbicides next to our vegetable gardens - fine. We could fire up chainsaws ourselves and cut down 40 or 60 acres of alders and other "weed" trees that were shading out their seedlings. The companies were happy to pay us their cost of a 15-minute fly-over with a helicopter sprayer. As local efforts to ban herbicide spraying consistently failed, we took them up on their offers, often as not.

The cost of rural re-inhabitation then was to live in a feudal fiefdom. A friend used to joke that life in the woods was distinctly medieval; all the land around our small homesteads was owned either by the Crown - Crown Zellerbach Corp. - or the Pope - Pope and Talbot Timber Co.

This feudal arrangement left us frequently disheartened by the loss of a nearby grove, or more significantly, a forest stand that protected a slope that fed our spring. True, timber companies, some of which operated mills in nearby towns, were earnest about replanting their lands after clear-cutting.

But if anyone had suggested that a time would come when we would look back on their dominion with nostalgia, they would have been howled off their front steps.

With the coming of the Reagan-era shark feed, they'd be honored as prophets.

The road to my place in a foothill valley outside the growing metropolis of Sequim climbs through a forest I've worked in for decades. I first cut firewood there when the logging roads were going in; I planted seedlings in the resulting clear-cuts and thinned the young stands as second-growth trees began to crowd in on one another. I had my first close-up look at a northern flying squirrel there. It clung tenaciously to the top of a leave tree as saplings fell around it. Another day, a black bear nearly ran over us as it fled the noise of our saws.

In the late 1960s, after Crown Zellerbach had bailed out of thousands of logged-over acres in the Dungeness River country, the old "700 Road" that wound across our mountain got a facelift.

Power and phone pedestals sprouted like mushrooms on the landings, and a sign with raised lettering announced "Lost Mountain Estates" where an old oil drum and a front-end loader bucket had sat.

This migration into the Dungeness Valley, in the much-touted "rainshadow" of the Olympic Mountains, is driven by retirees escaping the environmental blight, jammed freeways and random crime of Southern California.

The new migrants bring with them a taste for oversize houses: 5,000 square feet seems minimum, with arched cathedral entries and second-story balconies that overlook chandeliered dining pits.

New homesteads are easily recognized by their multiple rooflines, long strings of garage doors and huge RVs moored alongside like space shuttles poised to explore a strange and hostile planet.

The settlers also bring with them a Californian aversion to taxes - school bonds are particularly onerous - a penchant for large churches, and a passion for golf.

"Lost Mountain Estates"

The newer newcomers also bring a brand of conservative Republicanism spiced with a certain retired-military glower and wholly lacking in the born-again charm that used to enliven school-board discussions in small towns here.

At present, no agency is monitoring the effects of this transformation on the ecological health of the Northwest, but several wild salmon stocks have joined the endangered species list in Washington and Oregon, and wildlife habitat in this state is being lost to development at a rate of 30,000 acres per year. Here on the Olympic Peninsula, the number of indicators is rising.

Complaints to the Department of Fish and Wildlife over deer and elk damage to landscaping have increased. So has the number of human encounters with cougars - a pattern that usually bodes ill for the cats.

Conflicts between hunters and residential landowners are on the rise, and increased shoreline development along rivers and coastlines continues to play havoc with fish.

Taken as a whole, impacts to wildlife from converting vast tracts from forestry to residential development have been acute.

The clash between domestic and wild came home to the Dungeness Valley with the return of a herd of Roosevelt elk. Archaeological research has shown that elk have been part of the human story in this valley for at least 4,000 years. The Dungeness herd took a pounding with the coming of white settlement and agriculture in the late 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, elk were extirpated from the area.

But with a five-year moratorium on hunting in recent years, the elk have made a comeback. Now, they are sometimes seen from State Highway 101, strolling stately in pastures at the edge of downtown Sequim.

In the meantime, some of the herd's historic range south of town has succumbed to upscale housing. No problem for the elk, it turns out; they quickly acquired a taste for exotic roses and fertilized shrubs. But a big problem to new homeowners, many of whom had invested thousands of dollars in landscaping.

Apparently there were no big deer in the real estate brochures.

Letters poured in to the editor of the local weekly and the offices of local politicians. Pressure mounted, and in 1995, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife obligingly staged a tranquilizer shoot and live-capture rodeo, complete with helicopter and camo-clad volunteers.

They drugged and relocated half the herd to less populated valleys. Some biologists questioned the wisdom of so drastic an action only a few weeks before calving season, but their protests were merely a footnote. Since then, other solutions have ranged from re-initiating hunting seasons - a proposal that was justifiably shot down by local residents - and "herding" the elk back into the foothills.

The elk were back in the pastures almost before the herders returned to their trucks.

Most recently a pair of "Elk Crossing" signs on the highway were fitted with flashing caution lights triggered by radio-collared elk. Curiously, no one is pursuing an obvious solution - securing available habitat before it grows more houses - though with prices here, it's no wonder.

The plight of the Dungeness elk mirrors the fate of wild ecosystems throughout the Northwest. Elk, salmon, bald eagle, cougar - all are conspicuous emissaries of the wild. They can coexist with humans, but only up to a point. Here and elsewhere that point is quickly being reached.

Rural environmentalists see the writing on the wall. We continue to work for old-growth and roadless-area protection in the national forests, and for protection of salmon streams from logging and development. But without an effective effort to maintain commercial forestry on private lands outside national forests, the foothills of the Cascades and Coast Ranges will more and more come to resemble Santa Monica.

Supporting commercial logging in the foothills is a tough pill for some environmentalists to swallow. But as unpalatable as industrial clear-cutting is, I and other conservationists now work to keep commercial forestry alive and viable in rapidly urbanizing rural areas.

At the same time, we work to reform it.

So far, it's an uphill fight. The main vehicle available is strong commercial-forest zoning, but the usual host of boomers - real estate interests, developers and builders - are staunchly against it. Even the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which manages a million acres of public forest land, and the timber companies themselves frequently oppose the idea. They want flexibility to adapt to "changing conditions."

Well, wild ecosystems need a certain flexibility, too.

A couple of days after our semi-final fall flood in the Dungeness River, the flood itself a product of clear-cutting and development, I dropped down the cutbank below the highway bridge to see how the late-spawning steelhead and chum had fared. The river was still too roiled to look for fish or redds, but a pair of bald eagles, perched in the limbs of a cottonwood, told me salmon were there, even if I couldn't see them.

Salmon, eagle, peregrine, elk. As long as our wild compatriots continue to make a living in these watersheds alongside multiple roof lines, golf courses and convenience stores, then there is hope for the natural world - and by extension, for us. The eagles hunkered beneath the low November sky and kept me fixed in their gaze. I felt their keen eyes fastened upon me as I scrambled up the wet bank to my car, started up, and merged with the swirl of traffic.


Tim McNulty is a poet, nature writer and conservationist. He is the author of several books on nature and conservation, including Washington's Wild Rivers and Olympic National Park, A Natural History.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Tim McNulty