At 75, Olympic National Park has grown amid push-pull of forces
Some called it the “great elk slaughter” of 1937.
It was a sanctioned hunt, authorized by the Washington State Game Commission, and it took place just a year before President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the long-awaited bill creating Olympic National Park.
It was a shocking event, an unexpected onslaught of hunters against the majestic elk herds of the Olympic Peninsula. These herds had been protected for decades. In fact, they were the primary reason that President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1909 creating Mount Olympus National Monument, the forerunner of the national park.
“Everywhere I went, I found both men and women interested in the elk and their welfare,” wrote field naturalist M.P. Skinner, a National Park Service employee who had been surveying natural resources in and around the national monument in 1933.
Skinner’s observation about public support for the elk doesn’t entirely square with the so-called elk slaughter that was to follow four years later. But Olympic National Park has always been shaped by conflict and inconsistency — from the time the area was first proposed as a park in 1904 to the creation of the park in 1938 to the battles over park expansion today.
Olympic National Park — established 75 years ago this summer — was approved later in history than most national parks in the United States. In the 1930s, preservation of natural resources was gaining increased public support. But the rise of a new breed of conservationists did not lessen the battles over park boundaries, wildlife management, timber harvest and park development. These conflicts are inextricably embedded in the Olympic National Park we know today.
A REFUGE FOR ROOSEVELT ELK
In the late 1800s, the canine teeth of elk were prized for making jewelry, such as rings, necklaces and watch fobs. Elk are one of the few animals in North America with teeth made of ivory. While development throughout the West displaced the elk herds, hunters were shooting the remaining population for sport and money. Some took only the head or antlers and pulled out the teeth. As western states clamped down elk hunting to preserve the species, outlaws — known as tuskers — continued to poach elk for the teeth alone.
In 1905, the Washington Legislature outlawed elk hunting, which helped rebuild the herds, despite continued poaching.
In the 1930s, elk were competing with sheep for grazing in Olympic National Forest and on private lands around the Mount Olympus National Monument. In 1933, based on complaints about overgrazing, the state game commission opened a four-day hunting season on elk. More than 125 animals were killed. A more limited hunt was allowed in 1936.
Then, in 1937, the game commission announced an open season on elk — bulls, cows and calves — for eight days in October and November in Jefferson and Clallam counties.
“The impulse to kill something big must be very strong,” wrote historian Murray Morgan in his 1955 book “The Last Wilderness.” “Sportsmen came from as far away as Florida for the hunt on the Hoh. Hundreds of big-game hunters drove up from California. Men who had never hunted before came to get in on the kill.”
More than 3,000 hunters showed up in one weekend on a 13-mile stretch of the Hoh River. Cars were parked bumper-to-bumper along the river road. The elk were slow to react.
“Most of them had never heard a rifle,” Morgan wrote. “The herds would stand stupidly for a moment after the firing began, looking around slowly … then they would break away and race, single file for the hills … If a cow elk was killed, the calf would often stand by, bleating, while the hunters butchered her — or until someone remembered it was open season on calves too.”
The sound of gunshots was like a war zone. One rancher who lived in the valley counted 160 shots fired at one small herd of elk crossing a stream, according to Morgan’s account. The hunters missed the elk, but killed a pet dog. In another incident, a hunter killed a pack horse walking along a trail.
When the season ended, 5,280 hunters had killed 811 elk, about 200 more than the game commission had anticipated. Another 200 more may have been wounded, and state officials hired professional hunters to track down and finish off the injured.
“It is indeed fortunate the elk had the monument boundary as a fortress against this invading array of reckless hunters,” wrote an angry Preston Macy, custodian of Olympic National Monument. Without that refuge, he said, the entire elk population of the area could have been wiped out.
TIMBER INTERESTS DRIVE MONUMENT
The federal government’s presence on the Olympic Peninsula was ensured in 1897 when President Grover Cleveland established 13 forest reserves by proclamation just 10 days before he left office. The action was the result of public outcry after the government allowed millions of acres of valuable public lands across the west to pass into the ownership of large railroad and timber companies.
At 2.1 million acres, the Olympic Forest Reserve was the largest and most valuable of all the reserves. Logging interests immediately went on attack, saying the reserve was much too large for the public good. A political battle erupted. In 1900 and 1901, the reserve was reduced by taking out a total of 722,000 acres of lower-elevation forestland. The most valuable lands were removed from public ownership and dedicated for homesteading.
Within 10 years, however, nearly three-fourths of that — 523,720 acres — had passed into the hands of large land owners, according to Carsten Lien in his 1991 book “Olympic Battleground: The Power Politics of Timber Preservation.”
“All of this heavily timbered land …,” he wrote, “was fraudulently acquired under the Timber and Stone Act, which required an oath that it was ‘unfit for cultivation’ and ‘valuable chiefly for timber.’”
Meanwhile, elk hunting and reductions in their habitat by logging and settlement continued to deplete the elk population. People began to call for action. Lien noted that the Seattle Mail and Herald of 1904 launched its own campaign to save the elk.
“These animals have apparently been shot down for the mere love of killing and in a great many instances not a pound of meat has been taken, not in fact except the horns and teeth; the carcasses have been left to rot,” stated an editorial. “The elk herds of the Olympics are swiftly and surely vanishing.”
The following January, the Legislature banned elk hunting until 1915 and later extended it another 10 years. A call went up for a new national park. And Gifford Pinchot, who headed a new National Forest Service, was able to get Theodore Roosevelt to add back 128,000 acres to Olympic Forest Preserve in 1907, bringing permanent federal ownership to the shores of Hood Canal and restoring some land in the Soleduck Valley.
U.S. Rep. William Humphrey of Washington was unable to get support in Congress for a new national park to protect the elk — even after he conceded to timber interests that logging would be allowed. In 1909, Humphrey persuaded Roosevelt to create a 6,000-acre Mount Olympus National Monument under the Antiquities Act, which allowed for historical and scientific preservation. The monument was designed to preserve the elk.
Supporters of a national park thought they had gained a foothold with approval of the national monument. Instead, it generated more opposition against “locking up” public lands. Some wanted to abolish the national monument altogether. Instead, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation cutting the size of the monument in half, taking out most of the remaining timberlands of any value along with the lowest-elevation elk habitat.
PRESERVATION ARGUMENTS LEAD TO PARK
Creation of Mount Olympus National Monument did not satisfy those who wanted a national park, but federal agencies mostly ignored the idea, even after creation of the National Park Service in 1916. In 1918, Robert Yard, a high-ranking Park Service official, inquired about any special features in Mount Olympus National Monument, which remained under control of the Forest Service.
Acting Forester A.F. Potter replied, “The monument possesses no outstanding features, and there is nothing in our files here that would be of use to you.”
Throughout the 1920s, those who wanted to protect the elk conflicted with those who believed the elk were causing problems, such as overgrazing. The four-day elk hunt in 1933 revealed the true weakness of the Forest Service, which was powerless to stop a state-approved elk hunt, even on Forest Service lands. The result was a surprising outpouring of support for a new park from surrounding communities.
Later that same year, President Roosevelt transferred all national monuments from the Forest Service to the Park Service.
In 1934, Willard Van Name, an associate curator of the American Museum of Natural History, raised alarms about the future of the Olympic Peninsula. Van Name, well respected in the scientific community, visited the area the year after the Olympic Loop Highway was completed around the peninsula in 1931.
While others viewed the highway as a wonderful route to get into the majestic Olympic Mountains, Van Name had a different point of view. Without strong protections, he argued, the road would support logging of the last “large remnants of the wonderful primeval forests” and destroy habitat needed by an amazing variety of wildlife.
With a renewed debate raging in Congress and among federal officials, Roosevelt decided in September 1937 to view the area for himself. He was greeted with fanfare in Port Angeles, Lake Crescent, Forks, Lake Quinault and Aberdeen. The president asked plenty of questions about timber harvest, sustained yield and economic development. He concluded his visit with strong support for a large national park.
Still the congressional battle over park boundaries continued into June of the following year. Finally, a compromise plan was approved by Congress and the president. It allowed for a park of 638,280 acres with the provision that the president could expand it by proclamation to 898,292 acres.
On Jan. 2, 1940, Roosevelt signed a proclamation to add 187,411 acres, which included what conservationists considered essential elements of elk habitat, namely portions of the valleys along the Bogachiel, Calawah, Queets, Quinault, Elwha and Hoh rivers. The following year, another 62,881 acres were added, including the Ocean Strip.
The proclamation made Olympic National Park the third largest in the United States. It was no longer simply a place of beauty; it had become a wide-ranging ecosystem.
“This season did not see the wholesale slaughter of elk, which had been the rule in other years,” wrote Preston Macy, who had become the park’s first superintendent. “The reason may rest partly with the fact of the enlarged boundaries of the park … and the fact that so many elk have been slaughtered in recent years and the herds have been greatly reduced.”
PARK NOTABLE FOR LACK OF DEVELOPMENT
When the National Park Service was created in 1916, it was established that parks should be places of scenic beauty to protect plants and wildlife and be enjoyed by people, leaving them “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” It was thought that logging, grazing and mining would not be allowed.
Stephen Mather, a millionaire appointed as the first Park Service director, liked the part about parks being enjoyed by people, but he often ignored the rest.
“Golf links, tennis courts, swimming pools and other equipment for outdoor pastime and exercise should be provided,” he told Congress in hearings to create the new agency.
As director, he launched a massive road-building program to let people drive their cars through wilderness areas while keeping a few areas untouched. He wanted people to enjoy fine lodging and restaurants in the heart of scenic areas.
“Mather’s first concern for Mount Rainier was the construction of a full-fledged resort in Paradise Valley to replace the tent camp run by John Reese,” wrote historian Carsten Lien. “Even though the Milwaukee Railroad had already built a good hotel at Longmire, it was not where the ‘scenery’ was.”
Mather brought organized business interests into a Rainier National Park Company, which built a hotel with a monopoly on operations in the area.
The Mather era was known for its effort to exterminate predators, for introducing non-native fish for fishing and exotic plants for their beauty. In Yosemite National Park, he created a small zoo with various park animals held in cages. In Yellowstone, he set up feeding stations so that people could watch bears wallowing in garbage put out at scheduled times.
“It is a wonderful sight to visit one of the bear-feeding grounds in the evening, when from several hundred to several thousand people are observing the antics of the bears,” he said.
By the time Olympic National Park was created, the Mather philosophy was dying out. Macy, first Olympic National Park superintendent, opposed the development of roads across the park, including plans left on the drawing board by the Forest Service. One road was proposed from Brinnon on Hood Canal over Anderson Pass to Quinault on the coast. The Dosewallips Road, now blocked by a washout, is one section that was completed.
Macy did not push to acquire privately owned facilities that were annexed into the park, including Rosemary Inn, Lake Crescent Tavern, Storm King Inn, Graves Creek Inn and later Olympic Hot Springs and Sol Duc Hot Springs. He just left them alone.
Macy’s successor, Fred Overly, repudiated the 1938 park wilderness plan when he took over in 1951. His 1952 Master Plan called for “some slight sacrifice of the wilderness theme in order that full use and enjoyment by the public would be possible.”
Overly proposed one-way roads from Hurricane Ridge through Obstruction Point through Deer Park, and from Mor Park north to Ozette along the coast.
To get money to acquire land and commercial properties, Overly implemented a program of salvage logging, removing 65 million board feet of timber, according to estimates by Olympic Park Associates, a watchdog group. By acquiring the properties, Overly could upgrade them for improved visitor comforts. That was contrary to the 1938 park plan, but consistent with Mission 66, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s idea to improve visitor comforts in all national parks.
During Overly’s tenure, the park built Pioneer Memorial Visitor’s Center, Hurricane Ridge Lodge and the Hurricane Ridge Road, as well as many new campgrounds and interpretive facilities.
Ultimately, his salvage logging ran into a hornet’s nest of opposition from conservation groups, who complained that his actions violated the principles of park management. He claimed to be logging only damaged timber, but opponents said his definition was as broad as he wanted. After a struggle, Overly left in 1958 in what he said was “exile” to the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Wilderness Act, approved by Congress in 1964, required all national parks to develop wilderness plans within 10 years. Olympic National Park went through a long planning phase to identify areas suitable for wilderness. Eventually, 93 percent of the park was designated for wilderness protection under the Master Plan of 1976.
In 1981, the park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which concluded, “Olympic National Park is the best natural area in the entire Pacific Northwest, with a spectacular coastline, scenic lakes, majestic mountains and glaciers, and magnificent temperate rain forest; these are outstanding examples of ongoing evolution and superlative natural phenomena. It is unmatched in the world.”
The park’s General Management Plan, completed in 2008, still reflects the park’s original purpose: “Olympic National Park protects the largest population of Roosevelt elk in its natural environment in the world. Decades of protection from human harvest and habitat manipulation have sustained not only high densities of elk, but also preserved the natural composition, social structure, and dynamics of this unique coastal form of elk as found nowhere else.”
Contact Kitsap Sun reporter Christopher Dunagan at email@example.com.