A Record-Breaking No-Snow Year for the Olympics
by Tim McNulty

The data from Olympic National Park's May 1, 2015, snow survey are in and the results are alarming. All snow survey and automated Snotel sites in the park were empty of snow, indicating a zero percent snowpack.

Snow remains on the higher peaks, but it is the mountain basin snow sites that indicate how much moisture will be available for rivers, water supplies, and salmon later in the summer. May is a time when the Olympic snowpack is typically near its peak.

Park science technician Bill Baccus, who monitors the snowpack monthly throughout the spring, points to Cox Valley, at the head of Morse Creek, as an example. Most years, the site would have over six-and-a-half feet of snow in May. This year the site was bare.

Cox Valley 2014, NPS photo               Cox Valley 2015, NPS photo

The situation was similar at other survey and Snotel sites as well. The Buckinghorse site in the upper Elwha watershed typically has eight feet of snow in May; this year it registered none. The lower glaciers of Mount Olympus, among the coldest areas in the park, were also empty of snow.

"The phenomena of a lack of snow has nothing to do with drought," Bacchus explains, "and everything to do with temperature this year." In fact, precipitation, as measured at Waterhole on Hurricane Ridge and other Snotel sites, was slightly above average. The problem is that temperatures at these sites were nearly four degrees Fahrenheit above average as well. At mid and upper elevations, this makes the critical difference between rain and snow.

One result of this record-breaking winter will be reduced flows in park rivers, particularly snow-fed rivers like the Elwha, where April and May flows are already below average. The condition of these rivers in late summer and fall—and their effects on forests, fish, and domestic water supplies—is yet unknown.

A 2013 report from the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group predicts that the Pacific Northwest is likely to be four degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2050 or 2070, with a sight increase in precipitation.

Is this year a temporary aberration, the result of altered Pacific currents and elevated ocean surface temperatures—or a preview of coming decades under continued global warming? No one can say with certainty.

Either way, one thing is certain: The time for climate action is now. To learn more, visit Olympic Climate Action.

U.S. Navy Is Planning a Permanent
Electromagnetic Warfare Range on
the West Side of Olympic National Park

Map by Peninsula Daily News, Port Angeles, Wash. Used by permission.

The Navy is in the late stage of planning a permanent electromagnetic warfare training range on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. If approved, Navy Growler jets could ply the air space over Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest as well as tribal, public, and private forest lands and coastal areas for 12 to 16 hours per day, 260 days of the year.

OPA has written to Olympic National Forest asking the agency to deny the Navy's request for a permit to field ground-based electromagnetic emitter trucks on Forest Service roads pending a complete environmental impact statement (EIS) from the Navy fully disclosing impacts on residents, visitors to the park, and forests and wildlife. The Navy's existing environmental analysis (EA) was done without public review and is wholly inadequate.

To learn more about this ill-conceived plan to militarize the Peninsula's airspace—and to find out what you can do to help stop it—click here. To read OPA's comment letter to Olympic National Forest, click here. To read Olympic Forest Coalition’s analysis of the issue, click here.

Park Begins Mountain Goat Management Plan
[updated 12/07/14]

After a 20-year hiatus, Olympic National Park has begun work on a Mountain Goat Management Plan/EIS. When complete, the plan will determine the fate of exotic goats throughout the park.

Mountain goats are not native to the Olympics; they were introduced by hunting interests in the 1920s before the park was created. With the absence of natural predators and in the mild coastal climate of the Olympics, their numbers soared. By the 1980s the population reached more than 1,100 animals. Destructive impacts by goats on sensitive alpine and subalpine environments from feeding, trampling and wallowing became both visible and profound. A live-capture and translocation program, begun in the 1980s, reduced the population significantly. A 1990s planning effort, which proposed to remove remaining goats by aerial shooting, was placed on hold.

Findings from the park's earlier draft EIS and subsequent studies and reviews have confirmed that:
  • Goats are not native to the Olympics.
  • Even small numbers of goats do measurable damage to alpine plants and soils.
  • Goat impacts on Olympic marmots and other endemic and sensitive alpine animals remain unknown.
  • Chemical contraception is not a viable means of eliminating goats.
More recently, with goat numbers and impacts once again increasing, and the tragic death of Bob Boardman by goat attack in 2010, park managers once more have focused on this serious problem.

The current planning effort will consider a range of alternatives including: no-action, live-capture and translocation, lethal removal, increased nuisance control, and combinations of the above. OPA and a number of conservation organizations supported the park's proposed action of lethal removal of remaining goats during the earlier planning process. We remain committed to finding a workable solution through the current plan that will result in removal all non-native goats from the park.

A draft plan is due in the summer and a final plan in 2016. Let's help preserve the Olympics' stunning alpine habitats for the native plants and animals that have made it their home for millennia. Please write to Olympic National Park and express your concerns to park planners. Urge them to develop a workable scientific approach that will remove non-native goats from the national park.

To view OPA's scoping letter to Olympic National Park on the Mountain Goat Management Plan/EIS, click here. To review OPA's 1995 detailed analysis of non-native mountain goats in the Olympics, click here.

Olympic National Park Releases Preliminary Alternatives for Its Wilderness Stewardship Plan

Olympic National Park planners are making excellent progress on ONP's wilderness stewardship plan. They have offered a range of preliminary alternatives and they are reviewing more than 600 public comments. The plan will shape management of the Olympic Wilderness for the next 20 to 30 years.

The preliminary alternatives introduce some far-reaching measures for protecting this popular wilderness—and its outstanding ecosystems—for the coming decades. Your continuing involvement in the planning process will help ensure that the final plan gives strong protection to the Olympic Wilderness and ensures a quality wilderness experience for future visitors to the park.

OPA Recommends a Combination of Preliminary Alternatives B and C

Proposed wilderness trail zones reflect a sound foundation for managing appropriate levels of trail development and visitor use. And excellent options for protecting the Olympic Wilderness can be found in Alternatives B and C.

In addition, a number of farsighted recommendations are common to all action alternatives. OPA supports all of these recommended actions, with slight modifications for a few. Among the actions are:
  • Carrying capacities and quotas will be set for high-use areas.
  • No new trails will be constructed.
  • Visitor use will be managed to reduce impacts on native species.
  • Exotic plants and animals will be eliminated or controlled.
  • A restoration plan/EIS for the gray wolf will be developed.
  • Stock use will be regulated and confined to designated trails.
  • No new radio or transmission towers will be installed.
  • Wilderness education will accompany all permits.
OPA Recommendations

OPA supports an approach that would best protect natural resources and ecological process as displayed in Alternative C with some refinements. Our recommendations incorporate significant elements from Alternative B as well as a few from D.

Alternative B emphasizes reduction of the human footprint and contains the soundest recommendations regarding management of historic structures in wilderness, quotas and use limits, limits on administrative use of aircraft, and administrative tool use.

Alternative C emphasizes protection of natural resources and ecological processes. It contains the best recommendations for wilderness trail and campsite zoning (refined with some elements from other alternatives), trail and bridge management, stock use, and campfire restrictions.

Alternative D emphasizes a greater range of wilderness experiences for visitors. OPA finds some elements of this alternative worthy of support. Ranger-led interpretive hikes could be increased, tribal access to ethnographic resources would be permitted within the limits of the Wilderness Act, and some trail zone elements could be adopted.

For a more detailed analysis of the plan and OPA's recommendations, read on.

A Detailed Look at Alternatives and Issues

Alternative C presents an excellent strategy for preserving the stunning diversity of natural species and environments that make Olympic National Park what it is. Identifying heavily used nature trails (zone 1) and maintaining popular access trials up river valleys and major passes (zones 2 and 3) will allow for maximum enjoyment of the wilderness while protecting important resources. The careful delineation of primitive trails (zone 4) and way trails (zone 5), and regulating camping in fragile, alpine, and less heavily used environments provide sensible limitations on the use of these areas.

OPA particularly supports zone 4 prescriptions, with fewer maintained trails, and zone 5, with no maintained trails. As pressures on back country areas increase, places such as Skyline trail from 3 Lakes to Low Divide and Martin's Park trail should be zone 4, primitive, and the Bailey Range, Dodger Point high route, Lillian Ridge, upper Royal Basin, Lake Constance, and Lake of the Angels should certainly be placed in zone 5. Boot-worn way trails should suffice.

We also support specific trail zone elements from other alternatives that would increase resource protection yet allow more traditional use on some trails.

From Alternative B, we recommend:
Shi Shi Beach should be zoned 3, secondary, rather than 2, all-purpose. This area has experienced serious overuse. The current access trail descends a steep bluff (similar to overland trails on the south coast, which are zoned 3); the old overgrown military road should not be re-opened for trail access. The North Fork Sol Duc should be zoned 4 and 5, primitive and way trail; this reflects current use level and difficulty access (river ford). The South Fork Hoh trail should be zone 4, primitive, to preserve one Westside rain forest valley available for a more intimate trail experience free of stock use and developed sites. Similarly, the Rugged Ridge trail should be classed as zone 4, primitive, to reflect current use and comply with nearby Hoh-Bogachiel trail zoning. Aurora Ridge should be zoned 4 and 5 for similar reasons.

From Alternative D, we recommend:
In the following trail zones 2 and 3, we recommend traditional stock use be allowed on the Queets River trail, the Dosewallips/Hayden Pass/Hays River trails, and the Boulder Creek trail (to horse camp/former parking area at Olympic Hot Springs). These would be added to the stock trails already included in Alternative C: the Dosewallips/Anderson Pass/Quinault trails; Duckabush/First Divide/Skokomish trails; Elwha/Low Divide/North Fork Quinault trail; Long Ridge and (lower) Lillian trails; the Hoh River trail to Elk Lake; and the Bogachiel/Little Divide/Mink Lake trails. All are well constructed and maintained and could be accommodated with minimal impacts to fragile areas.

Other Elements of the Plan

OPA endorses other elements of the draft alternatives that are worthy of note. And there are a few items we addressed in our scoping letter that still need attention.

Historic structures. We strongly endorse the decision not to consider historic structures to be contributing elements of wilderness character. This clarifies the issue and affirms the clear intent of the Wilderness Act. The prescriptions for historic management in Alternative B are most in keeping with wilderness principles: no reconstruction of historic buildings that have naturally deteriorated; allowing natural processes to take precedence; and developing a determination of which historic structures and landscapes would be maintained in wilderness. We request that this determination be included in the draft plan under NEPA with full public participation and review.

OPA sees an important distinction between Native-maintained coastal prairies, with their associated species diversity, and old homestead clearings, with their exotic grasses. We support careful management of the first, and recommend natural succession for the latter.

Scientific research. The flexibility provided to researchers within the permitting process in Alternative C offers the best approach to managing this important aspect of wilderness.

Park operations. OPA favors the moderate directions in Alternative C where park operations would be more reliant on non-mechanized and non-motorized equipment and transport, but with some flexibility in application.

Fire. Alternative B best recognizes the ecological role of fire in the landscape within the constrains of adjacent lands and public safely. We oppose hazard fuel reduction activities to protect nonessential buildings in wilderness.

Campsites and commercial services. We agree with the approach in Alternative C that would retain the number of campsites and the amount of commercial services at about the level same as present.

Wilderness District. To ensure that these and other measures in the plan receive full consideration in the day-to-day management of the park, OPA once again requests that the plan recommend a wilderness district be created for the Olympic Wilderness, and a wilderness district ranger appointed to oversee all park operations within wilderness.

OPA thanks park planners for the thorough and diligent job they have done thus far in identifying key issues and management prescriptions. We encourage them to continue in this positive direction to create a stewardship plan worthy of the magnificent Olympic Wilderness.

For More Information

To view the full text of OPA's comment letter, click here. To read OPA's wilderness plan scoping letter, click here. To keep abreast of the ongoing planning process, click here.

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