Editor's note: Seventy-five years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt looked far into the future when he decided to create Olympic National Park, preserving out of the Washington Peninsula a sprawling wilderness landscape. Writer Tim McNulty, whose books on Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks have won state and national awards, takes a look back at the president's prescience and its value to the National Park System.
Seventy-five years ago, in June, 1938, Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the bill creating Olympic National Park. With this act Americans embarked on something new in land conservation: creating a wilderness preserve large enough to protect intact old-growth forest communities and the hosts of forest-dependent wildlife they contained.
Olympic National Park set a new standard for ecosystem conservation in America, and it marked a turning point in wildland protection.
For the first time, a powerful economic industry, entrenched government agencies, and the political clout of local and state officials failed to turn the tide of popular support for a spectacular wilderness.
By the mid-1930s the contentious argument over the creation of Olympic Park had reached a stalemate. National conservation groups proposed a large park that included some of the peninsula's magnificent temperate old-growth forests. Government agencies and local business interests first opposed any park, then pushed for a smaller park devoid of any commercial-grade forests or potential mineral lands.
It had been nearly a half century since two early Olympic Mountain explorers, James Wickersham and Lt. Joseph O'Neil, had proposed a national park in the Olympics. John Muir, founding father of the national parks, had earlier urged protection for Olympic's forests. A half-dozen park bills had been introduced over the years. But the U.S. Forest Service held doggedly to its management of the Olympic forests, and the National Park Service seemed content to manage the small Mt. Olympus National Monument in the heart of the range.
Nationally, it was a different story. In the light of rampant forest destruction in the Appalachians and throughout the upper Midwest, pressure mounted to preserve some of the last lowland virgin forests in the Northwest. Willard Van Name of the American Museum of Natural History framed the issue powerfully: "The [Olympic] Peninsula affords the last opportunity for preserving any adequate large remnants of the wonderful primeval forests... which everywhere have been or are being logged off to the very stick."
By 1937 both sides were entrenched. Timber companies, local politicians and business interests fell in behind a bill for a small park shorn of any commercially valuable forests. Even the Park Service bowed to local pressure and advocated a park that did not include lowland forests.
But national and statewide advocates pressed fervently for a large park. Their goal was to preserve much of the remaining temperate rain forest valleys of the Olympics and the winter habitat they provided for Roosevelt elk (named for an earlier president) and a wealth of related wildlife. Wisely, they took their cause directly to President Roosevelt.
In September of 1937, FDR decided to visit the Olympic Peninsula, view the proposed park, and if possible break the logjam. At a stop attended by thousands in front of the courthouse in Port Angeles, he promised the crowd: "you can count on my help in getting that national park, not only because we need it... but for a whole lot of young people who are going to come along in the next hundred years of America."
That evening at his cabin at Lake Crescent Lodge, FDR told a small gathering of Park Service and Forest Service executives, congressmen and senators: "You are not allowing a large enough national park. I am thinking 50 years ahead." When a congressman from Hoquiam, Washington, invoked the old saw that timber jobs would be lost with a large park, Roosevelt countered that "five billion board feet of timber is but a drop in the bucket compared to the 119 or 120 billion board feet already logged on the peninsula."
He gave voice to the national consensus that the remaining original forest is "much more valuable for its recreational use than for lumber." The following day Roosevelt toured the forests of the western peninsula, including burned over stump lands miles in extent. He became even more committed to a generous national park.
FDR's trip crystalized national attention on the park, defeated Forest Service and timber industry opposition, and gave lowland forest preservation its first national push forward. When Roosevelt signed the bill creating Olympic National Park the following year, it recognized the Olympics' incredible natural richness and diversity. The park's qualities were articulated in the accompanying U.S. House Report. " . . . preserve for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the people the finest sample of primeval forests . . . winter range and permanent protection for the herds of native Roosevelt elk and other wildlife indigenous to the area . . . conserve and render available to the people, for recreational use, this outstanding mountainous country . . . and a portion of surrounding verdant forest together with a narrow strip along the beautiful Washington coast."
In a huge victory for conservationists, the act authorized FDR to add significant lowland valley forests in the Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets and Quinault river valleys to the new park. The bill also contained, at the president's insistence, provisions to add the spectacular wilderness coast and the Queets River corridor.
To development interests who still hoped to see the new park "improved" with roads, lodges, resorts, and chalets, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, reaffirmed Congress's intent in a speech delivered in Seattle that September.
"In the case of a wilderness area like Olympic National Park, the solution can be stated in four words," Ickes stated. "Keep it a wilderness."
The creation of Olympic National Park marked a high-water point in citizen conservation efforts and set the course for future national park and wilderness protections. Our parks would no longer be confined to "pleasuring grounds," curiosities, iconic landscapes, and lands of marginal economic worth. Parks would now contain commercially valuable, low-elevation forests and critical wildlife habitats. And they could preserve vast areas in wilderness condition.
Seventy-five years ago, Olympic National Park was a stunning victory. In the many conservation battles that have ensued in the Olympics -- from attempts to remove west-side valleys from the park to freeing the Elwha River from century-old dams -- the national significance of Olympic has carried the day.
As conservationists pursue further ecosystem protections on the Olympic Peninsula, we can take heart from the past and know that we are working to defend one of the biologically richest and most ecologically significant wilderness preserves on the planet.
Tim McNulty is a poet, essayist and nature writer. He is the author of ten books of poetry and 11 books of natural history, including Olympic National Park: A Natural History, which won the Washington State Book Award, and his Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park won the National Outdoor Book Award.
Tim's nature essays and articles on conservation and the environment have appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including: American Forests, Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife, Forest, High Country News, Pacific Northwest, The Oregonian, Sierra, Slate, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and other publications.
Tim lives with his family in the foothills of Washington's Olympic Mountains.