Supporting the Parks and Calming Inner Panic

Knute Berger takes a vacation in Olympic National Park for the sake of his sanity—and democracy
Knute Berger  |   November 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
A free-to-all source of hope—the Quinault River, Olympic National Park

It's become kind of a healing ritual. With the arrival of fall, my wife and I head out to say hello to a national park. Last year, it was Glacier in northern Montana; before that, Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This year, we went closer to home to Olympic on the peninsula.

The idea is to escape, to go someplace beautiful and wild. But I admit there is also something political in it for me. The great writer of the West Wallace Stegner said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” In a time of sequesters and attacks on government, I want to spend my tourism dollars supporting the parks.


Such getaways also serve as a way to calm inner panic. In “green” Seattle, we’re always worried about something: coal trains, plastic bags, endangered orcas, driving too much, the planet. Global warming is real, and we Seattleites try to take action against forces larger than ourselves. Many of us do something every day to stem the tide of environmental destruction, even if it’s only ordering a “sustainable” sandwich for lunch.

When every step seems so fraught with moral consequence, when the Goliath of climate change seems unstoppable, it’s easy to feel despair. The media onslaught doesn’t help: Activists predict doom; cable pundits generate paranoia. With images of drowning polar bears, droughts and super tornados flashing before us, it takes no big leap of the imagination to see eco-apocalypse just around the corner.

The parks are oases of nature, but also sanity. If eco-angst is too much, the healing power of nature can help. For one thing, the planet isn’t dead yet. If you doubt it, hike a rain forest trail along the Quinault, Hoh or Sol Duc rivers. Every square foot teems with life, from slugs to beetles to butterflies. You’ll hear the sounds of rushing rivers, squawking jays and, if you’re lucky, bugling elk. There are berries, mushrooms, old-growth spruce, hanging moss, profusions of plants everywhere of all manner and description. Amid global change, it’s important to remember that life thrives. While the parks aren’t insulated from change, they both protect and help us connect.

But you cannot protect wilderness by simply locking it up and walking away. Park ecosystems are still often sources of contention with the locals. A proposal by Senator Patty Murray to designate the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers and watersheds as federal wilderness or include them as part of the Wild & Scenic Rivers program—an effort called Wild Olympics—is visibly opposed on the peninsula with road signs calling it a “job killer” program aimed at eliminating timber work. At Quinault, we found a sign portraying Obama as a red-starred “Socialist” in a Nazi-like uniform, and saw another likening the “land grab” to the hockey-masked serial killer Jason.

It’s easy to understand some of the local frustration. Unemployment is 13 percent in Grays Harbor County. There are those who argue that it’s greener to cut our Northwest timberlands, where replanting is done, than clear-cutting Third World forests. The shift of rural economies from timber to tourism is sometimes jarring. The land of legendary loggers is sprouting wineries and lavender farms. In Forks, they sell “Twilight” firewood and “Bella Berry” pie. Paul Bunyan has been displaced by a new mythology of sparkling vampires.

The tensions between some parks and rural communities are real. So, too, is the fact that government action—such as the founding and care of the national parks—can make a huge difference if for no other reason than reminding the public of the inspiring landscapes and natural world we’re trying to preserve. Activism to save the planet cannot live on the fear of dire consequences alone. The cry of the hawk, the pounding of the waterfall, the silence of the old-growth forest must be heard as well.

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