|Sun sets over the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound, viewed from Seattle.|
Were they greeted by virgin, damp, fragrant, moss-draped forests of fir, hemlock, and cedar, many with trunks wide enough to house a modern-day car?
Did they observe undisturbed cliffs and hillsides, framed only by mist and snowcapped peaks, rather than skyscrapers or industrial cranes?
Were they captivated by the deep, crystal waters of what's now known as the Salish Sea, when it was populated only by whales, seals, salmon, and other marine life, not motor boats or giant cargo ships headed toward Asian ports on the other side of the Pacific?
Were they awestruck by the sight of glacial volcanoes like Mount Rainier or Mount Baker as the bulks of rock and ice hovered in surreal majesty over pristine harbors?
In the time before the American Pacific Rim was forever altered by development, industry, and human progress, I'm sure it was one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
It still is — but it's not the same.
Sometimes referred to as "Pugetopolis" these days, the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area is one of the fastest-growing in the country. Young people like myself move here for employment opportunities. The fact that it's a fun place to live doesn't hurt, either. The air is clean. The politics are progressive. The culture is vibrant and diverse. There's great beer, wine, coffee, and restaurants. You're just two hours south of the Canadian border, and never more than a day trip away from hiking, backpacking, skiing, water sports, and veritable backcountry wilderness in any direction from the city.
But all of these perks come with a heavy price. The cost of living is high and steadily increasing. The traffic is sometimes terrible. The municipal infrastructure struggles to keep up with the population gain. There's ugly suburban sprawl, despite legislative efforts to control it.
That says nothing of environmental concerns, either. The virgin forests that greeted Vancouver and Winthrop in the 1700s and 1800s are now almost entirely wiped out by generations of loggers who have decimated fragile, irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems in the name of growth and profit. The waters of Puget Sound, Lake Washington, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca have been tainted by toxins from tankers, vehicles, and industry, despite public efforts to mitigate the problem. The glaciers, waterfalls, and deep woods of the nearby mountains are under siege as the population growth of the city leads to an increasing number of urbanites who want a taste of the wilderness but don't know how to behave when they're there.
|Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.|
Three huge national parks and preserves also surround Seattle — North Cascades, Mount Rainier, and Olympic.
Washington's Olympic Peninsula — a beautiful place whose natural identity is unlike any other spot on earth — is the site of the region's latest conservation battle. The peninsula is home to the almost-entirely-roadless, 923,000-acre Olympic National Park, which harbors glaciated peaks that rise straight up from the Pacific Ocean, as well as the longest wilderness coastline and only temperate rainforest in the lower 48 states.
Sadly, the peninsula is also the site of environmental exploitation, symbolized by ravaged plots of tree stumps, destroyed habitats, and choked waterways that lie outside the boundaries of protected areas. Lumber companies and residents of depressed towns near the coast say the region's timber resources are critical to its economic survival. They oppose efforts to expand wilderness lands there.
But that's exactly what Washington's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray, is trying to do right now. Her plan, dubbed the Wild Olympics bill, would augment wilderness territories in the Olympic National Forest by about 200 square miles, creating a buffer around the park while adding protection for various scenic rivers in the area.
|Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park in the summertime.|
Environment and nature? Or jobs and economy?
This, of course, is a falsely-framed frame. It isn't a question of whether livelihoods should take universal precedence over landscapes. It's a reality in which the former is inextricably dependent on the latter.
If we allow our forests to be decimated without oversight or restriction, we eliminate one of the last safeguards we have against greenhouse gases and disastrous global warming. If we allow our glaciers, lakes, rivers, and seas to be poisoned, we sacrifice our sources of safe water. If we permit limited natural resources to be consumed without restraint, those resources will eventually disappear. If we rape the beautiful places that surround the Seattle area, we sacrifice the quality of life that draw people to this area and fuel its economy in the first place.
In fact, under any of those scenarios, the economy suffers.
All too often, I hear about lawmakers in Congress blocking environmental legislation on the premise that it will hurt job creation and the economy.
But then I think about native populations who lived and thrived off of the land here in the bountiful Pacific Northwest, long before George Vancouver or Theodore Winthrop ever set foot. And I remember how their survival wouldn't have been possible without the natural resources — the water, the trees, the wildlife — that they so deeply cherished.
The same is true today, even if we don't want to admit it. We cannot have jobs, or a healthy economy, or a livable planet unless we're good stewards of the natural environment and resources that remain. It's simply not possible.
Think about that the next time you hear a Tea Party Republican feign concern for the economy for the sake of giving companies a free pass to wreck our planet.