I’m on the western end of Lake Quinault, Washington. Standing on the edge of the roadway, I’m separated from the lake by a large swath of trees and bushes that grows on the incline down to the beach. The water is still and clear, reflecting the hills in the national forest that surround it. Fresh snow, which fell on the mountains in Olympic National Park the night before, is stark white and stands out in the distance.
The Olympic Peninsula is a place of conflicting interests amid stunning natural beauty. I’m with a log truck driver, who works the long stretch of road between Hoquiam and Lake Quinault. He’s agreed to show me this area of Washington, much of which is considered old-growth or rainforest.
It’s an area thick with vegetation, a diverse mix of cedar, hemlock and other trees that can withstand the 12 feet of rain that fall here every year. Some of the land is owned by papermill and logging companies, and I find it surprising that it isn’t just clear cut. Rather, the companies clear out trees that are dying or have died from natural causes. Then they replant the trees in what appears to be Christmas-tree farm fashion.
But as soon as we drive into Olympic National Forest, the vegetation becomes increasingly thicker. The trees overhead are heavier, and the shade on the road is darker. We turn off on a logging road, and he drives into the heart of the forest. He stops a few miles in at a place overlooking miles of trees that roll out below us. There is a chilly dampness in the air which seeps under the zipper of my hoodie and into the openings of my fingerless gloves.
Below us, the ground is thick with trees that have fallen in storms. Smaller trees have nowhere to grow. Because we’re in the national forest, the driver explains, these trees can’t be logged, even though they’re doing nothing but rotting on the ground. Later in the day, he points out areas that were devastated by a storm that came through a few years ago. Millions of dollars of trees are just lying on the ground, protected by their national forest status. Meanwhile, logging companies are having to turn elsewhere to find timber to harvest.
As I look across the vegetation below me, I think about how this relates to my travels in general. When we travel, we don’t normally realize the impact the local culture has on the land—or the impact the land has on a local culture. But behind every natural wonder there is a story which has shaped the people who live there. Here on the Olympic Peninsula there is a battle of sorts between the people who live on the land and those who make the laws about what happens to it.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, you can usually find me on the “environmental” side of arguments. But there’s always more than meets the eye. In the case of Washington state, there aren’t loggers who are just looking for land to destroy in order to make a buck. In fact, they want to find a way to preserve the land too. Without trees, they are without jobs. I can see the tree lovers’ side of the argument too, though. Who wants to perpetuate our reliance on a natural resource that will disappear forever if we are irresponsible in the way we harvest it?
Is there no middle ground?
We drive out to the edge of the lake, which has a thin layer of frozen ice on it. Small homes perch on the edge, thin lines of smoke float from the chimneys. “These people don’t live. They exist,” the driver says.
When we hop out of the truck again, I notice that dew is frozen on plants that haven’t yet seen the light of the sun, which fights its way through the branches of the overgrown cedar trees. The smoky scent of hemlock hangs in the air. A thick web of mint-green Old Man’s Beard hangs off the branches.
I am introduced to one of the driver’s friends—another man involved in the logging industry— who recently moved his house from the edge of the Quinault River when the water was forcefully rerouted by the state. Another gentleman, who still lives on the river, will have to move his house within the year. “He felled every one of those logs himself,” the driver’s friend says. His wife shakes her head. “It’s a shame,” she says.
Just as I’ve considered the tricky national park debate of sacrificing land in order to preserve it, I’m forced to think about the moral debate of right and wrong when it comes to environmental conservation. Is there a way for people to live on the land and preserve it for generations to come? Travelers come in contact with countless places around the world—the Masai Mara in East Africa, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington—often without realizing the significance of the land to those who live there.
We come, we go, we move on. But in our wake we leave people with jobs, trees that have fallen and homes that have been moved. The world is a three-dimensional place. I try to remember this as I climb into the heated truck and we drive back from where we came.