BRINNON — The Dosewallips River trail takes Terry Ramsby into enchantingly unfamiliar territory.
“It’s kind of foreboding and murky here,” the resident of Columbia River prairieland says as he emerges from a dripping tunnel of ferns and low-hanging firs at the trail’s head. “Not many places like this.”
Ramsby wishes more people could experience this scenic eastern slope of the Olympic Mountains, but a portion of Dosewallips Road — which once led visitors into Olympic National Park and two popular campgrounds — was ripped out by the Dosewallips River in 2002, changing it from a roadway into footpath. The empty Elkhorn campground, about a mile up the trail from the washout, remains open, but moss drapes its parking spots and rot devours its picnic tables. Gone are the days the Dosewallips campgrounds drew thousands of visitors each year.
The road has become a focal point in the debate over whether the 1,440-square-mile park — which celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer — should tilt toward recreation or preservation. Rerouting the road away from the river’s eroding bank would mean clearing several acres of old-growth forest, followed by a renewed stream of vehicle traffic in an area that hasn’t heard the rumble of engines for more than a decade.
“The Dosewallips issue typifies the kind of 21st-century debate we’re seeing with the park,” said Tim McNulty, a longtime park preservationist and author of “Olympic National Park: A Natural History.” “The future of the park is really going to be about protecting natural resources vs. increasing users. It’s where everything is headed.”
The balance, according to park leaders and users, is shifting toward a wilder park — one that favors salmon and elk over hikers and campers.
FEWER DOLLARS, FEWER PEOPLE
Political forces have played a role in this shift, but the more formidable forces of nature and economics are likely to play a larger part in the decades to come.
Federal appropriations for national parks have remained flat since tumbling down from $3.3 billion in 2009 to 2010’s $2.8 billion allotment. Last year’s $2.7 billion budget amounts to less than a third of the park system’s growing maintenance backlog.
This year, federal sequestration cuts stripped millions more from the park budget. Olympic National Park, which saw a 6 percent reduction from sequestration, cut more than a dozen jobs, scaled back nature education programs and slashed its winter road clearing budget.
Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum foresees tough financial times to come.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but intelligent and reasonable people seem to think park budgets aren’t going up any time soon, and that they might be going down,” she said.
That means less money for the trails, roads and other amenities that give visitors access to the park’s attractions.
The number of visitors has also dwindled. The trend has been a downward one since 1995, when the park drew nearly 3.7 million visitors. Last year’s draw amounted to just 2.8 million people.
Creachbaum says declining attendance is largely tied to the economy.
“The economic (downturn) has affected visitation to all national parks, as has gas prices,” she said. “We reflect the national trends.”
Ambivalence toward some traditional park activities is also drawing down attendance.
“We need to stay relevant to the (people) that don’t normally fit the demographic that came here over the last 75 years,” Creachbaum said, adding that a typical park-goer was “white, well-educated and middle- or upper- class.”
Americans are increasingly urban, multiethnic and have fewer means to buy the outdoor equipment and drive long distances to national parks. And the next generation of potential park enthusiasts are more techie than woodsy. They need more than a “creek and stick” to enjoy a day at the park, Creachbaum said.
Americans don’t necessarily have to visit the nation’s protected areas to support them, McNulty said.
Widespread opposition to oil drilling in Alaska’s remote National Wildlife Refuge is an example of that.
“It might get very little use but support for preserving it is overwhelming,” he said.
McNulty predicts that Olympic’s value to future generations will reside in its wildness.
“In the coming decades, it will be the restoration of (the park’s) ecosystems that will mean the most,” he said.
The recent restoration of the Elwha River has been celebrated across the nation and sparked increased visitation to the park’s north-side attractions. The removal of the river’s two dams is expected to revitalize the area’s endangered salmon runs.
“I think (the Elwha project) will fuel more visionary and restorative efforts,” McNulty said.
Also on the park’s long list of vulnerable species: spotted owls, peregrine falcons, Olympic marmots and the marbled murrelet, a shorebird that nests in old-growth forests. The park’s recent success reintroducing fishers gives some preservationists hope that wolves may also make a comeback.
The park’s developing wilderness stewardship plan may give direction on how these species will be protected in the coming years. With 95 percent of the park designated as wilderness, the plan is a “singularly important” effort that could alter public access rules, helicopter flight patterns, and the park’s approach toward preserving historic structures, McNulty said. While such planning efforts are important, the key to boosting the park’s ecosystems lies largely outside the park’s borders, said retired park wildlife biologist Bruce Moorhead.
“Parks have been managed like islands,” he said. “But the changes happening around parks are increasing, and it’s these changes that have the most impact to park habitat.”
Logging, dams, roads and other uses in the vast patchwork of private, state and federal lands have taken a toll on the many species that range between protected and unprotected forest.
“It’s important to protect as much land outside the park as possible because — let’s face it — animals can’t read boundaries,” said Connie Gallant, vice president of the Olympic Forest Coalition.
Moorhead says the U.S. Forest Service and other government land managers have taken a more conservationist-minded approach in recent years. The Forest Service, which leases public land to timber companies and allows hunting and fishing, is working closely with the park on regionwide management strategies.
“Now they have shared goals,” Moorhead said.
Both agencies are paying close attention to the shared impact of climate change on the peninsula’s forests and wildlife. Warming temperatures will continue to melt the park’s glaciers, which have already seen a more than 30 percent reduction since 1970. The glaciers are essential for many species, from ice worms found only on glacial ice to steelhead trout and salmon that spawn in ice-fed rivers.
A 2011 climate change study conducted by the park and forest service stresses the need to prepare for several possible climate-related scenarios, including the further spread of invasive species, over-predation of marmots by coyotes and the die-off of wild berry species that bear and other animals depend on.
Wildfires are expected to burn more frequently because of climate change, necessitating joint preparation and response by park and forest service staff.
PRESERVATION VS. RECREATION
Many preservationists think government land managers still aren’t doing enough to protect the park.
Gallant and her group have mounted the “Wild Olympics” campaign in support of proposed legislation that would expand wilderness protections in the park’s neighboring national forests by some 130,000 acres and apply “wild and scenic” designations to 19 Olympic Peninsula rivers. A Wild Olympics bill was introduced by former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, but it died in Congress last year.
An amended proposal — which abandons earlier provisions to expand the park by 20,000 acres — is awaiting reintroduction.
Dicks’ 6th Congressional District successor, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, hasn’t decided whether he’ll back it. He recently indicated a desire to find the “sweet spot” between preservation and economic development.
Mountain biker and hunter Dan Boeholt wants Kilmer to steer clear of the bill. He and other members of the Working Wild Olympics group say expanded protections would hurt the peninsula’s already hard-hit tourism and timber industries and limit maintenance on many popular forest service trails.
“We all like the wilderness of the Olympics,” he said. “But we want to keep it working for multiple users.”
Even if the Wild Olympics bill fails to gain traction, Boeholt is resigned to a wilder Olympics.
He echoes the sentiments of his opponents when he predicts that shrinking park budgets and the unmitigated impact of Mother Nature will transform the park.
“The signs are everywhere,” he said. “The restrooms in campgrounds are deteriorating some of the campgrounds are closed, the roads are in rough shape, and some of the park signs are barely standing.”
And Dosewallips Road, he points out, is only one road on a growing list that have had stretches reduced to trails by roiling rivers or snow that the park can’t afford to plow.
McNulty knows the list well — Staircase, Olympic Hot Springs and Skokomish River roads, to name a few.
“All to these places were at one time drivable roads,” he said.
McNulty admits he’s not all that worked up over portions of park roads slipping back into the hands of the forest.
“Olympic — from its creation — was intended to to be a wild park,” he said. “And that’s what we need to do in the future: keep it wild.”
Contact Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick at email@example.com.