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Monday, July 30, 2012

A Triumphant Return for Fish on the White Salmon River

In the frothy water of the upper White Salmon River, fish have been spotted migrating upstream.  

But these aren’t just any fish. These adult, hatchery-born steelhead are pioneers for their kind, returning to the decommissioned Condit Dam area for the first time in 99 years.

Built in 1913, the massive Condit Hydroelectric Project boasted a height and width of 125 feet and 90 feet, respectively, making it the largest dam to ever be removed in the United States. (Recently, this record was happily broken with the removal of the larger Elwha Dam and later this year with the Glines Canyon Dam.)

Condit Dam’s original design included fish ladders, which were destroyed by flooding in 1917. The Washington State Fisheries Department required then-owner Northwestern Electric Company to compensate by participating in a fish hatchery upstream.

However, the creation of the dam effectively ended natural salmonid migration on the White Salmon River. Condit Dam blocked passage for Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish that migrate from salt water to spawn in fresh water. For nearly a century, these fish had been confined to the lower 3.3 miles of the river.

The removal of Condit Dam
In 1996, the current owner, PacifiCorp, decided to intentionally breach the dam rather than purchase the expensive fish passage upgrades required for relicensing. After a lengthy process, the dam was ruptured in October 2011, and crews have been working around the clock to dismantle the rest of the dam by the August 31, 2012 deadline. Washington Wild was a party to an historic settlement agreement for the dam decommissioning, which took two decades to be realized. Last year, our Conservation Director, Tom Uniack, witnessed the official dam breaching. You can read about the dam breaching celebration here.

Amazingly, nine months after the dam was breached, wildlife officials have confirmed the presence of as many as 21 fish jumping per 20 minutes at Husum Falls and BZ Falls, both of which are upstream of Condit Dam. Last summer and fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved salmon above the dam to spawn, hoping that their offspring will return in later years. 

However, the fish spotted by scientists with the Yakama Nation Fisheries program and the U.S. Geological Survey are adult steelhead, not the salmon which were artificially reintroduced.

The White Salmon River
This sighting confirms that fish are traveling of their own volition from the river’s mouth at the Columbia River to the upper White Salmon, past the decommissioned dam and into new habitat areas.  

And the traveling isn’t easy for these fish. There is still a lot of sediment and debris in the once turgid waters.  Fish must swim through a long tunnel at the base of the dam in order to migrate upstream, braving swift-moving waters and debris blockage.

However, the management plan for the river rests on the hope that salmon and steelhead will repopulate the river on their own without needing to be artificially reintroduced. Fall and spring Chinook salmon are expected to follow the steelhead in recolonizing the White Salmon River, as they tend to inhabit the three miles of river below the dam, and might make their way further upstream this year.

The emancipation of the White Salmon River is just another example of the triumph of nature over human industry and innovation. Just as the river will return to its natural course, the migrating fish will return to the river they call home.

Amy Bearman is Washington Wild’s TIPS (Teens in Public Service) summer intern. She will begin her freshman year at Stanford University next year. Hailing from Sammamish, Amy enjoys hiking, gymnastics, and Washington Wild’s office dogs.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Natural History on the Gray Wolf Trail

Hikers on the Gray Wolf Trail
Washington Wild recently began a summer hike series to wild places around the State. For more information, visit our web site. To register, please send us an e-mail. 

Although I have tread the trails of the Olympic Peninsula since the day my legs held my body stable, few days of my life have brought as much knowledge and wisdom about the place I’ve called home for the last 21 years as on Saturday July 14th, hiking the Lower Gray Wolf Trail with Washington Wild supporters and our guide, Tim McNulty.

Tim is a renowned poet and author of some of the most essential natural history books for the region, and has called the Olympic Peninsula home for nearly 40 years. Our hiking destination for the day was essentially in his backyard, and his knowledge of the area is reflective of such. Every turn of the trail and plant growing alongside seems to be second nature, an experience that Tim truly finds joy in sharing.

In the early hours of the day (early by standards of a college student on summer break), a collection of people from various northwest Washington locations gathered atop the pavement of a public parking lot amidst the hardly “urban” center of Sequim, WA. After a brief introduction to Tom Uniack, the Conservation Director of Washington Wild, we were casually briefed to the knowledge and experience of our guide, Tim. Tom and Tim (clearly a confusing similarity for someone terrible with names) unrolled a map on the asphalt to give us context of the area for which we were about to embark.

These forested slopes bordering the great Olympic National Park are managed as part of Olympic National Forest, by the U.S. Forest Service. Much of the great old growth in the National Forest was logged decades ago. Wilderness designations, like the Buckhorn Wilderness,  protect some of the pristine forests that survived from new roads, logging and other development. Other old-growth groves and intact forest still persist without legislative protection.. Tracing a finger on the day's hiking trail along the lower Gray Wolf river basin, Tim and Tom pointed out the areas that are currently being proposed for Wilderness designation through the Wild Olympics Campaign, where we would spend part of our hike.

Upon rolling up the map, our transition from concrete to second growth was swift. I have always taken for granted how fortunate the small communities scattered around the Olympic Peninsula are to be in such proximity to nature, but was quickly reminded of this luxury as we parked at the trailhead only minutes later.

The beginning of our hike was along an old logging road put to bed and converted to a trail in the late 1980s. It burrowed deep into the valley to access those trees so seemingly unattainable by humans. It has since grown in, save for a small trail, as have the trees whose removal it aided.

Stopping at a clearing scattered with wildflowers and grasses, Tim pointed out faint lines in the forested hillsides across the valley that indicated the periods when different stands were clear cut or fell victim to fire or windstorm. The subtle variation in the look of a coniferous forest is something I’ve never taken the time to consider. An untrained eye gazing out across the treetops sees only a solid sea of green spires stretching to the sky in uniformity, but in reality, it is a patchwork record of the area’s history.

The trail snakes along the old road a bit further before dipping down into a moist buggy section along Cat Creek, where banana slugs litter our path and moss is draped from the branches of every conifer. I relayed the tale I was told as a child about this moss actually being dragon skin - a tale my mom told me every year when we went camping about dragons that roamed the Olympic Mountains, whose skin was shed all over the trees due to fights for territory.

We found our way back up to a drier, breezy hill, where sun-kissed pine needles instantly brought the sweet smell of everything good about home. The sound of the roaring river ahead alerted the nearing of our lunch break, but just as we headed down close to the stream, Tim suggested a brief diversion to one of his favorite places, a stand of old-growth forest.

The short path off the main trail leads us into a small grove of towering elders. Everyone’s necks crane upward, trying to take in the enormity of the handful of monsters surrounding us. Their age, height, girth, and deep wrinkles in their bark command a reverence unrivaled by human creation. There’s just something about big trees. It’s something so hard to describe or relate, let alone take in. The only appropriate reaction I’ve found is silence. Silence and awe.

Ten minutes later, we are seated on logs and rocks beside the misty Gray Wolf River, enjoying the hidden flavors of food that only physical exertion in the wilderness brings out. Contemplating the river beside us, Tim is asked,

“Is there any story behind its name?”

“Not really, at least not to its origin, “ Tim responds. “But strangely it sort of fulfilled its prophecy, because the second to last gray wolf on the peninsula was shot at Cameron Creek in its upper headwaters in 1919...”  

Phoebe Reid
The last wolf on the Olympic Peninsula was killed in the 1920s, but prior to that, wolves were common in the Olympic mountains and the Gray Wolf was one of the last bastions of the iconic species. The river was undoubtedly named for their abundance, and it was only coincidence that one of the last would die beside it and commemorate their absence.

Just past our lunch site, the trees open into yet another piece of the forest’s patchwork. Here the climate feels arid and dry. The trees are spaced far from each other, so the sun has no filter before reaching our skin. Instead of the overcrowded canopy we have been hiking under, we find ourselves amidst a forest that has mostly found its resting place on the ground. The windstorm from 40-50 years ago blew over the trees like match sticks, leaving only the strongest few standing. This naturally-caused disturbance gives a glimpse into the sudden difference in temperature and composition of any disturbance, human or natural, especially that of a freshly logged stand of trees.

Soon we have reached the top of a hill, and the turnaround point of our hike. We overlook the steep river below - one of the steepest in the US - as it plunges toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The trail continues ahead less than a mile further before the river cuts it off. Prior to a flood, there was a bridge leading to trails on the other side, but now this is the end of the road.

The hike back elicits contemplation of all that we have learned. There are still occasional questions about this plant or that, but for the most part I find myself considering the opportunity we have to step foot in these places. There is absolutely nothing like hiking in the forests of the Northwest, especially those of the Olympic Mountains. I consider how lucky my generation is to be in an age when people and organizations like Washington Wild are working hard to preserve this land for future generations in years to come.

On my drive home, I pass fresh clearcuts and heavy machinery loading debris into a dump truck to be hauled away, and I can’t help but think of what a tragedy it would be for a place like the lower Gray Wolf, which is currently only designated as a National Forest, to be stripped of its beauty, its wisdom, and its patchwork of history. After an immersion into the heart of the area, alongside its supporters and disciples, the proposed wilderness designation seems only logical considering the gift of the wilderness we have been given to care for.

Phoebe Reid is an Education Intern for Washington Wild. She is currently pursuing a Geography and Environmental Studies degree at Dartmouth College and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable international development and food systems.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hiking Denny Creek

Denny Creek
We stood at the base of the cataract, gazing up at the mountain of water that thundered as it surged over the rocky overhang and plunged seventy feet into the pool below. A vivid rainbow arced up from the churning water and hung ephemerally over the scene. All around us on either side of the ravine jutted steep cliffs, dripping with snowmelt and steaming from the morning sunlight.

No, we weren’t extras in a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Instead—mere would-be hikers, traversing a portion of the Mt-Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on a rare sunny day in the Pacific Northwest.

It was only a forty-minute drive or so to the Denny Creek trailhead, located off I-90 just before the popular Snoqualmie Pass ski resort. (I used to ski there after school some days. It’s incredible that everything in Washington is so compact—that it was possible to jump in the car, zip up to the pass, ski for a few hours, and still make it home in time to do my homework and have a cup of hot chocolate.)

My 12-year-old brother (I’ll call him “J”) tugged on my sleeve and whispered uncertainly into my ear: “Is this the ‘natural waterslide’ we were looking for?”

“Sure,” I said seriously. “At 70-feet and a 90 degree angle drop, it’s the world’s most extreme natural waterslide.”

He scowled. “I walked all this way and there’s not even a waterslide!” It was only 1 mile to the falls, but J carried on as if he were being dragged on the Bataan Death March. He was a proponent for staying home and lounging on the shores of Lake Sammamish like we do every lazy summer day. But I had decided: while the area around Lake Sammamish is beautiful, it’s important to strike out away from home to enjoy all of the diverse, awe-inspiring scenery that the Washington outdoors has to offer.

While J was preoccupied with filing a formal complaint on Mother Nature’s apparent lack of waterpark paraphernalia, our fellow hikers seemed not to share his frustration. They waded and splashed in the shallow pool at the base of the waterfall, peals of children’s laughter echoing off the soggy cliffs.
Only in Washington is it possible to set out looking for one natural wonder and end up stumbling onto another, equally impressive feature. In our case, we had set out to find the popular “Slippery Slab” which is accessed by the Denny Creek Trail, a favorite of hikers on hot summer days, only to happen upon Franklin Falls, located further along the trail. This trail comes highly recommended especially for the infrequent hiker: at 2.0 miles round trip and a breezy 400-foot gain in elevation, you’ll barely break a sweat. And the reward along this short hike is a perfect example of Washington’s unsurpassed natural beauty.

We didn’t have much time to stand around and gawk, though—the falls showered us with a fine coating of mist that soon soaked through our clothes. Shrieking, we clambered up the slippery path and back into the cool undergrowth.

Fun at Denny Creek!
The Denny Creek Trail leads to many of the natural wonders that can be found within an area of Snoqualmie National Forest known as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which spans a staggering 390,000 acres. First signed into law in 1976 by President Ford, it is one of the largest Wilderness areas located close to the population centers of the central Puget Sound region, and is frequently accessed by many outdoor enthusiasts from the Seattle area.

Currently, Washington Wild is leading a coalition of conservation organizations in a campaign to expand the Alpine Lake Wilderness to include the Pratt River Valley (approximately 22,000 acres), as well as to designate the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as Wild and Scenic Rivers. After falling just short of final passage in 2010, legislation has been reintroduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Dave Reichert (R-WA08).

Washington Wild works to preserve Wilderness areas, conserve natural resources, and maintain and improve access to outdoor recreational areas. The Alpine Lakes expansion legislation would preserve crucial habitats for animals such as cutthroat trout, elk, and mountain goats while maintaining the rivers as a source for clean water. Finally, legislation would ensure that outdoor activities such as kayaking, rafting, and hiking can be expanded in the Alpine Lakes area.

What can you do to get involved?
Contact Senator Murray and Congressman Reichert and thank them for their continued support  for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions. You can submit an email here.

And discover the beauty of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness for yourself by exploring one of the hikes it encompasses, such as Mason Lake, Pratt Lake, or Melakwa Lake (the Denny Creek Trail).

Maybe we’ll see you there.   

Amy Bearman is Washington Wild’s TIPS (Teens in Public Service) summer intern. She will begin her freshman year at Stanford University next year. Hailing from Sammamish, Amy enjoys hiking, gymnastics, and Washington Wild’s office dogs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

River Renaissance: Keeping Washington's Rivers Wild & Scenic

Illabot Creek
Earlier this month, legislation to permanently protect 14.3 miles of Illabot Creek, a tributary to the Skagit River, passed the U.S. House of Representatives. If the legislation is approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by the President, the legislation would mark the first Wild and Scenic River designation in Washington since the Klickitat River was designated in 1986. Incredibly, for all of the Evergreen State’s wild rivers, only six are protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Our neighbor to the south, Oregon, has approximately sixty rivers designated as Wild and Scenic, leaving Washington trailing far behind.

In 2008, Washington Wild teamed up with American Rivers and American Whitewater to stress the importance of the Wild and Scenic River Act among local wild land advocates in hopes to push for additional river designations statewide. More than thirty advocates attended an environmental workshop on the importance of the Wild and Scenic River Act to establish the seeds of a River Renaissance here in Washington State.

The first step to utilizing Wild and Scenic Rivers is understanding their significance. In order for a river to qualify as Wild and Scenic, it must be free-flowing and possess at least one Outstandingly Remarkable Value (ORV). The following excerpt is from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968:

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their environments, possess outstanding remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The ORV must be unique, rare, or have an exemplary feature that is significant on a regional or national scale, which is ultimately protected through the Wild and Scenic designation. 

Forty-four years ago, the Wild and Scenic River Law was passed, allowing the designation of exemplary rivers as Wild and Scenic, thus preventing future environmental degradation. This act prohibits dam construction while retaining recreational benefits, such as swimming, rafting, and kayaking. Additionally, a ¼ mile buffer extends additional protection of river values depending on the level of classification (wild, scenic, or recreational) for that stretch of the river.

Wild and Scenic River designations can be a lengthy process, often taking years to become officially implemented. Like a Wilderness designation, it must pass both Houses of the U.S. Congress and be signed by the President.

Before a proposal can be officially introduced to legislation, conservation advocates must make significant amounts of proposal development in addition to stakeholder outreach.

Since our 2008 workshop, Washington Wild has been working within coalitions of other organizations to pursue additional Wild and Scenic River designations for some of Washington’s most iconic rivers. In addition to the Illabot Creek proposal, several other rivers are have proposals being developed or are awaiting approval:

  • In 2009, Washington Wild’s affiliation with the Alpine Lakes Working Group resulted in a proposal being introduced to legislation by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Dave Reichert. This proposal would designate 40 miles of the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers near Snoqualmie Pass as Wild and Scenic. Its approval would also designate an additional 22,000 acres for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. If this legislation passes the Senate, it could come into effect by the end of 2012.

  • Last month, Congressman Norm Dicks and Senator Patty Murray introduced the Wild Olympics legislation. If passed, this legislation would designate 19 Wild and Scenic Rivers totaling 464 miles on the Olympic Peninsula. Additionally, this would designate 126,000 acres of new Wilderness on the Olympic National Forest. The Wild and Scenic designations in this bill alone would triple the total river mileage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system in Washington. Washington Wild is a founding member of the Wild Olympics Campaign which has been working on this proposal since 2009.

  • Washington Wild is a member of the Volcano Country Rivers Campaign which is working to support a proposal to protect 12 rivers totaling 200 miles as Wild and Scenic in southwestern Washington near Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. The public proposal has not yet been introduced into Congress.

  • Another campaign that Washington Wild is pushing for is Cascades Wild, a Puget headwaters Initiative, which seeks to protect as many as two dozen rivers, totaling as much as 300 river miles, which flow from the Cascades to Puget Sound. If this campaign succeeds, it would help protect the source of Puget Sound for future generations.
While Washington currently has remained at six Wild and Scenic Rivers since the 1980s, the “timber wars” days are now behind us, and this is the perfect time for us to push for additional Wild and Scenic River designations. If these campaigns are approved, Washington could designate an additional 55 rivers in the next few years, which will add 1,000 river miles statewide. There is still room for improvement for our river system throughout the state, since only 1% of Washington’s river miles have been designated as Wild and Scenic, but we believe that this is only the beginning for Washington’s river renaissance.

Nick Lannoye is Washington Wild’s conservation outreach and research intern. He is finishing up a degree in Environmental Resource Management at Western Washington University. A Seattle native, Nick enjoys playing tennis, hiking, and rooting for Seattle’s sports teams.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

28th Anniversary of the Washington Wilderness Act!

Pasayten Wilderness - Photo by Andy Porter
Today marks the 28th anniversary of the Washington Wilderness Act of 1984, which designated nearly a million acres of new wilderness on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands across Washington State. Almost  three decades later, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to those in our state Congressional Delegation who championed this legislation, including former Senators Henry M. Jackson, Daniel J. Evans, and Slade Gorton as well as former Representatives Al Swift and Mike Lowry. 

The historic legislation established 19 new wilderness areas around the state including the Buckhorn, Wonder Mountain, The Brothers, Mt Skokomish, and Colonel Bob Wildernesses within the misty slopes of the Olympic National Forest.  In the North Cascades, the Act added the Mt Baker, Noisy Diobsud, Henry M Jackson, Lake Chelan-Sawtooth, and Boulder River Wildernesses. Amidst the iconic volcanoes of the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests in southwest Washington, the law added Clearwater, Tatoosh, Glacier View, Trapper Creek, Norse Peak, William O. Douglas, and Indian Heaven Wildernesses. In Northeast Washington, the 41,000-acre Salmo Priest Wilderness was created, the first and only designation on the Colville National Forest. The lone BLM Wilderness was Juniper Dunes in eastern Washington.  Additionally, the legislation added significant acreage to the already existing Glacier Peak, Mt. Adams, and Pasayten Wilderness areas. 

Washington Wild (formerly known as the Washington Wilderness Coalition) played a crucial role in ensuring the passage of the Washington Wilderness Act of 1984, permanently protecting these outstanding areas.  Our organization was founded in 1979 in part to organize across Washington State from Spokane to Vancouver and from Yakima to Bellingham around an anticipated opportunity for a statewide wilderness bill. In 1984, after years of hard work and perseverance, that goal was realized. 

The 1984 bill continued a strong legacy of Wilderness in Washington Sate that began with the initial designations in the 1964 Wilderness Act and continued in 1976 with the designation of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Today, Washington State is ranked 5th in the nation for the amount of acreage of federally designated Wilderness. Washington currently boosts 31 Wilderness units, totaling 4.4 million acres, and we are still striving to protect wild lands throughout Washington State through advocacy, education, and civic engagement. 

While 1984 was the most significant year for Wilderness expansion in Washington State, four years later marked another important year for Wilderness expansion in our state. The Washington Parks Wilderness Act of 1988, designated significant sections of Mt. Rainer, Olympic, and North Cascades National Parks as designated Wilderness. 

After 1988, wilderness designation in Washington State slowed as conservationists battled unsustainable logging threats on our national forests.  However, as the century turned, wilderness advocates and Washington Wild refocused on “the next generation” of wilderness designations for Washington State.

And we have been busy!

In 2002, Washington Wild helped develop and advocate for a new wilderness, located in the Central Cascades. The legislation was introduced by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Rick Larsen. In 2008, The Wild Sky Wilderness became law, designating more than 106,000 acres of wilderness, the first designation on Washington national forest land in nearly 25 years. 

In 2007, Congressman Dave Reichert proposed to designate additional Wilderness to the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness area. Later, Senator Murray joined Reichert and expanded the bill to designate the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers as Wild and Scenic. Washington Wild helped lead the charge to get Washingtonians on board with this proposal. Through outreach and civic engagement, Washington Wild and our allies built tremendous support for Alpine Lakes Wilderness expansion.  If passed, this legislation will protect 22,000 acres of rare low elevation forest land in the Middle Fork and South Fork Snoqualmie River Valleys. These low elevation areas include old growth forests, key fisheries habitat and multi-season recreational opportunities, which are under-represented in the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness and other wilderness areas statewide. 

View from Dirty Face Ridge - Photo by Ben Gruel

In 2009, Washington Wild worked as a founding member of the Wild Olympics Campaign to designate new wilderness and wild and scenic rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. Just last week, Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks introduced legislation that would permanently protect 126,000 acres and 19 Wild and Scenic Rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. These lands include many low elevation forests and old growth stands. If passed, this legislation would create the first wilderness areas in the Olympic National Forest since the passage of the Washington Wilderness Act of 1984. 

It would be quite fitting that during the 28th anniversary of this legislation, the Peninsula could see its Wilderness areas expanded. 

To learn more about the important work that Washington Wild has been doing since the passage of the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act, please visit our website,