The Epic Battles to Protect the Olympic Peninsula


The great experiencing of nature on our Olympic Peninsula must be earned, whether slogging up the “poop-out drag” to Marmot Pass or climbing ladders over headlands between Pacific Ocean beaches. It’s likewise with visionary legislation.

The Wild Olympics bill, designed to protect 126,500 acres of wilderness and put streams under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, has been before Congress for more than a decade. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the legislation just before Congress’ holiday recess, sending it to the Senate floor. And that’s where it’s likely to remain, unless chief sponsor Sen. Patty Murray can navigate through the tricky climate of an election year.

Wild Olympics is wildly popular in these parts, at least when measured against the state’s past wilderness battles. It is, in words of House sponsor Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.,“a proposal that works for folks across the community.”  Ex-Secretary of State Ralph Munro says: “The legislation is a marvel of civic involvement and compromise.”

The proposal is crafted by local residents; however, the Olympic Peninsula is nowadays getting national recognition. A magazine survey recently rated Olympic National Park tops among America’s “crown jewels,” celebrated for its size, its combination of mountains and ocean beaches, as well as its fabled rain forest. Hikers line up at the backcountry permit desk at its Port Angeles Visitor Center. Guests at Lake Quinault Lodge witness Forest vistas that made President Franklin D. Roosevelt a park advocate. FDR needed a wheelchair, but he got around.

“Steady progress each successive Congress” proclaimed a release from Rep. Kilmer, celebrating Senate committee approval. The Congressman is a product of Port Angeles, where schoolchildren in 1937 greeted a visiting Roosevelt with a banner advocating the national park he would create.

But so far this progress is more uneven than steady. Kilmer pushed Wild Olympics through the House of Representatives last year, only to see it succumb in the Senate. The process may work in reverse this time around.

What’s the problem? Every Republican on the Senate committee voted against Wild Olympics. Such is the Senate that one member can hold up even the most popular legislation — witness Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, blocking Pentagon promotions for months.

Republicans in years past have helped preserve more than 1 million acres of land on the Peninsula. President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to create a national monument that was precursor to the national park, as he acted to head off slaughter of the elk that now bear his name.

Dan Evans was introduced to hiking as a Boy Scout at Camp Parsons on Hood Canal. He manifested his love for the Olympic Peninsula as governor and senator. Evans was instrumental in getting Shi-Shi Beach and Point of Arches put in the park and crafting the 1984 Washington Wilderness Bill to protect wilderness in Olympic National Forest surrounding the park. The bill included mountains that make up Seattle’s sunset skyline.

The Washington congressional delegation used to be a model of bipartisanship, hammering out compromises on the future of public lands. President Gerald Ford signed legislation creating the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Ronald Reagan signed the Washington Wilderness Bill and legislation creating the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. George W. Bush signed into law the Wild Sky Wilderness.

In today’s polarized climate, however, the likes of Evans and Munro — hell, even Theodore Roosevelt — get labeled RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only. Local opposition to Wild Olympics is confined to tiny pockets, such as the south shore of Lake Quinault. Sadly, however, ideology rears an ugly head at the national level.

The legislation has been carefully crafted by Kilmer not to cost timber jobs. Its economic benefits extend beyond recreation. It would “permanently protect some of the healthiest intact salmon habitat left on the Peninsula,” said Ron Allen, longtime Jamestown S’Kallam tribal chairman, who formerly headed the National Congress of American Indians.

Or listen to Bill Taylor, head of Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish: “Our oyster beds depend on the clean, cold silt-free water that drains off Olympic National Forest into Hood Canal. Protecting these watersheds allows our industry to grow, expand, and continue to benefit the economy and ecology of Washington state.”

Years ago, the timber industry schemed to get rain forests of the Bogachiel and Calawah Rivers excised from the national park. A Seattle writer, Carsten Lien, blew the whistle in his book Olympic Battleground.

Other battles were fought to preserve the wildness of the Peninsula.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas twice led treks along the park’s coastal strip. “Wild Bill” sought, successfully, to preserve its wilderness character and thwart a proposed coastal road. During the Trump Administration, Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant each led beach hikes in opposition to offshore oil drilling.

Recreation has become an economic driving force on the Peninsula. “The Wild Olympics bill has taken great care to preserve and enhance recreational access to areas it is protecting,” said Dan Evans.

The Peninsula is also the site of a landmark (or waterborne) environmental restoration effort. Two aged, salmon-blocking dams have been removed from the Elwha River, the Peninsula’s greatest stream. Seventy miles of spawning habitat, almost all of it in the park, have been reopened. Elwha restoration was championed not only by the Washington delegation, but pushed by the likes of New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Ohio’s GOP Rep. (later Governor) John Kasich.

Can Wild Olympics be moved through this Congress? Don’t bet on it, but there are some signs of hope, albeit as steep as the trail into Lake Constance (which gains 3,000 vertical feet in two miles).

Rep. Kilmer, who is retiring from Congress, is well-regarded, and he was able to get non-controversial bills through the House in a previous period of Republican control. He has also chaired a bipartisan panel charged with improving the Congressional operations.
Sen. Murray is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, an ideal position from which to engage in end-of-session horse trading. Sen. Maria Cantwell helped write the Great American Outdoors Act during a period when the GOP controlled Congress’ upper chamber.

Sen. Murray has shown a knack for end-of-session legislating. In 2014, she persuaded retiring, arch-conservative Rep. Doc Hastings, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, to go along with expansion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and protection of the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River. Hastings wanted items of his own tucked into an omnibus spending bill. Murray was likewise able to push through Wild Sky.

Wild Olympics is a worthy cause. Visionaries, notably both Roosevelts, helped protect the Peninsula’s core mountains and wild coasts. That many-generations’ vision: to protect ancient forests, bring back once-great salmon runs, preserve wildlife habitat, and allow our species to experience the natural world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “The Advocate.”

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Wonderful reminder of such an important project. Thanks Joel. I doi have to add, though, didn’t stormin’ Norman Dicks help craft and lead this, too?

    ‘Tis a season of miracles. Maybe this will be one.

  2. Mr. Joel
    Thanks, as always, for a fine column.

    Washingtonians are especially lucky to have had some of our great and dedicated public servants.

    Especially compared to now as we are reduced to hoping a few R wannabe performance artists will “sane up” temporarily.

  3. The Olympic Peninsula is mostly made up of outsiders nowadays. The people that have been there for generations came from logging families. Stop putting words in the mouths of people whose families have made their living there before the environmentalists and and democrats shut down the woods and killed many of the logging towns. We DON’T want this wild olympics bill to pass. If anything we are hoping someday to get the USFS to realize they should manage the forest they way they used to instead of counting bugs and slugs. We’d prefer to see logging come back and to see the trails opened up for motorcycles and to see the roads that have been shut down or ripped out reopened! Seattle needs to stop trying to change the whole state the way they want it. If you aren’t from an area stop trying to change it.

      • The tribes aren’t the end all be all. The towns and communities on the peninsula that provided worthwhile industry and jobs for the people all involved harvesting some sort of natural resource. For that there needs to be roads into the mountains that go far back in. Also, for people to enjoy the mountains they need to be able to get up there. Most people have a life and want to hurry up and go into the mountains, do what they want to do, see what they want to see, and then go about their day. We don’t want to spend hours or days hiking in for 10s of miles to get to where we want to go, that’s ridiculous, nobody that has a life has time for that.

      • Yes, it is more complicated than that. I’m sympathetic to loggers and others on the Olympic Peninsula who feel beleaguered; it may surprise you to read that, Mr. Murdoch. But the way the forests have been managed in the past ensured their destruction. We are all “from” this area. We all have a stake in its survival.

        • The way it was managed in the past ensured that the old stuff would be harvested so it wouldn’t end up getting old and rotten and fall over or become dried out tinder for a fire. Overcrowded sections used to be thinned to make room for trees to grow instead of being stunted. Blow downs could be logged so they don’t go to waste. There is so much waste going on, missed chances for revenue, etc. Also, with logging going on and roads being built it would mean that access to the mountains was often enough and varied enough that if there were a fire that needed tended to it would be easier to get to. The forests are not being properly managed by the USFS at the moment and they are starting to realize that. The hippies finally realized that it wasn’t logging that was hurting that stupid insignificant spotted owl…it was the barred owl which was able to thrive after logging ceased.

  4. That fractured final sentence was supposed to read, “thank you for this article, Joel Connelly. Beautifully written as usual.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.