Five Reasons to Protect Washington’s Wild Olympics

Bill to safeguard wild and scenic rivers and wilderness has broad local support

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Five Reasons to Protect Washington’s Wild Olympics
Wild Olympics
Local communities have been working for nearly a decade to safeguard wild and scenic rivers on the Olympic Peninsula, including more than 15 miles of the Hamma Hamma River.
Douglas Scott

Editor’s note: This article was updated Dec. 13, 2019, to reflect a recent House Natural Resources Committee vote. 

The northwest corner of Washington state is renowned for its free-flowing rivers, ancient rainforests, and stunning scenery—attributes that extend well beyond Olympic National Park. Now Congress has a chance to give the nation’s highest level of  conservation status to more of this area: The reintroduced Wild Olympics  Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (S. 1382/H.R. 2642), which the House Natural Resources Committee approved on Dec. 5, would  designate 19 rivers and their major tributaries as wild and scenic, and  safeguard 126,000 acres of Olympic National Forest as wilderness. 

Here are five reasons Congress should pass the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and five stakeholders who support these efforts:

1. Safeguard clean water

The 19 Olympic Peninsula rivers and their major tributaries are home to some of the most robust runs of wild salmon and steelhead in the Northwest. These waters are also the lifeblood of Puget Sound, and provide clean drinking water to local communities, such as Sequim and Port Townsend.  The ancient forests proposed for wilderness protection—such as South Quinault Ridge, Buckhorn Wilderness Additions, and Wonder Mountain Wilderness Additions—protect key upstream watersheds that feed the rivers and tributaries.

For example, the Dungeness River, below, flows through a mossy forest along its journey to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Wild Olympics legislation would permanently protect the Dungeness as a Wild and Scenic River.

Wild Olympics
Douglas Scott

"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."

Bill Taylor, president Taylor Shellfish Farms, Shelton, Washington

2. Permanently protect ancient forests

Much of the Olympic Peninsula’s old-growth forests are not permanently safeguarded from logging or development such as road building, but the legislation would fix that by forever conserving some of the most majestic ancient temperate rainforest in the U.S., including South Quinault Ridge. Because logging is already prohibited in these areas under U.S. Forest Service rules, no timber jobs would be lost under the legislation.

Wild Olympics
Thomas O’Keefe

"Conservation for me on the Olympic Peninsula means that … generations to come can experience this place the way that I experience it and the way my grandpa experienced it when he fished out here and that forever we always have this—what is wild and what is the Olympic Peninsula and our culture today."

Ashley Nichole Lewis, guide Bad Ash Fishing Guide Service, Taholah, Washington

3. Help ensure a bright economic future

Outdoor recreation in Washington, including in the Wild Olympics—from hiking, camping, and kayaking to hunting and fishing—generates $26.2 billion in consumer spending annually and supports 201,000 jobs. Roughly 550 area businesses support the legislation, including fishing and shellfish industries, outdoor recreation companies, farms, and others.  

Below, hikers take in the view on Mount Ellinor in the proposed Mount Skokomish Wilderness Additions.

Wild Olympics
Douglas Scott

"The ancient forests, wild rivers, and scenic beauty of the Olympics are the foundation of our high quality of life that attracts visitors, entrepreneurs, new residents and investment in our communities, strengthening our local economy."

James Thomas, president and CEO Thermedia Corp./MasQs, Shelton, Washington

4. Preserve critical fish and wildlife habitat

The Wild Olympics are home to a diverse array of wildlife, including black-tailed deer, cougar, Roosevelt elk, and black bear. Additionally, the clean waters provide habitat for three species of salmon (pink, coho, and chinook) and four species of trout (steelhead, cutthroat, rainbow, and Dolly Varden). These streams and rivers are vital to the health and restoration of Puget Sound, and draw thousands of recreational fishermen each year.

Wild Olympics
National Park Service

"For Lower Elwha, the most important aspect of these new designations is the increased protection for salmon habitat. And we appreciate that it expressly acknowledges the fundamental interests and expertise of all treaty tribes in the restoration of fish habitat."

Frances Charles, chairwoman Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe

5. Recognize strong local support

For nearly a decade, local stakeholders have been working to find common ground to protect the Wild Olympics. An inclusive and collaborative public process to craft the proposal has led to the support of more than 800 Olympic Peninsula and Hood Canal-area business owners; tribes; elected officials; sportsmen, conservation, and outdoor recreation groups; and farms, civic organizations, and religious leaders.  This includes more than 30 leading hunting and fishing organizations, and local guides who have endorsed the legislation.

One of the reasons for the broad local support is the protection of outdoor recreation access to magnificent places such as the Sol Duc Falls, below, on the Sol Duc River. The legislation would designate more than 40 miles of this river as wild and scenic.

Wild Olympics
Douglas Scott

John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.

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