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Essay of the Month: Our National Parks

I was captivated by the northwest rainforest during my month last fall in North Cascades National Park and rainforest, and after a long winter I needed to get away from the studio and commune with nature.  After some deliberation I ended up in the Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I was not disappointed with the rainforest or the Pacific beaches.

In particular the Hoh Rainforest was breathtaking–the great trees, mosses, ferns, birds, bugs–layers and layers of life, life that has taken millennium to evolve. To simply sit in it was joyful. To be able to also sketch and try to interpret a bit of that beauty with my skills was therapeutic. When I sit quietly in an environment that has been changing and building for so many centuries, I get a glimpse of what life should be, of how an organism can support not just itself but also form symbiotic relationships with so many other organisms around it. One of the great Sitka spruce in the forest might be 500 years old and all during its life host hundreds of other species, but death does not end its bounty. It continues to give nutrition and shelter for up to another 500 years as it decays. What lessons the rainforest has for us–what priceless gifts, not measured in board feet.

The problem came in getting in and out of the park. The interior section of the park is huge with the vast majority devoted to wilderness. The coastal part of the park is a very narrow strip intermittently running down the west coast of the peninsula. Most of the land on the peninsula that is not in the park has been logged or is being logged now. After the massive logging of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the timber industry has had its boom and bust periods since and is now on an upswing with Asian demand for lumber high. Areas of former rainforest have been converted to tree plantations with the huge rainfall of the area stimulating rapid growth. I expected this, but what I did not expect was the continuing destruction of old-growth rainforest. When I first drove into a clear-cut area, I almost drove off the road. I cannot adequately describe either the visual or emotional experience. It was a scene of total devastation–enormous stumps, smaller stumps torn from the ground and scattered, grotesque piles of branches all a ghostly gray color. Other than a bit of brush, little was growing.  It was dead and the death was not a peaceful one. Rape, pillage, destruction, devastation all seem words that contain some of what I saw.  What took so many thousands of years to create was gone. It was not an uncommon sight. On my many drives to sketching sites I found area after area in this condition. I thought that maybe the grayed color of the stumps I was seeing meant that clear-cutting was not being practiced today. That idea was dispelled when I came upon a fresh cut of old-growth—the same scene of devastation but the flesh of the trees still fresh. Moving from the sublime of the preserved rainforest to the terror of the decimated areas several times a day for a week weighed heavily on me with sorrow for the wanton destruction humans can thoughtlessly apply to other life.

At the end of my final day of sketching at Ruby Beach, I began the drive back to my motel in Forks. I had passed a sign for a turn-off to see a “big cedar” many times during the week. I decided that it would do me good to see a great tree before my return to the studio. It was a long drive on a small road through state land that was being “managed” by a timber company. Mostly I saw plantation trees but there were still some gruesome clear-cuts. The road became smaller the further I went but finally led me to the tree. I thought it was dead at first but then saw that it still had some live growth on a few upper limbs. It was big. As a matter of fact, it was the largest western red cedar in the world. It towered above the logged tree plantation around it like a dying sentinel. Someone had scrawled on the informational sign “this tree would not be dying if the forest around it had not been removed.”  Maybe so. How many more trees as great or nearly as great have been removed for profit, taking with them an ecosystem so deep and rich most of us cannot begin to understand it.

What I take away from this story is that we must support our National Park system. Support in every way possible–economic, political, support for any possible expansions, and moral support for those who dedicate their lives and professions to maintaining these natural wonders. The parks are our best hope to preserve bits of what this world once was, to save the wisdom, information, beauty, and lessons they contain that are beyond all monetary value, and to guard these remnants from the greed of humanity. This certainly goes for Olympic National Park and equally for every other nature-oriented national park in our country. Someone once said that the National Park system is the best idea the United States has had. I am in complete agreement.

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