Living on the Land | A Journey to Lake Quinault, Washington

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.


11 Responses to “Living on the Land | A Journey to Lake Quinault, Washington”

  1. leland

    very thought provoking,,,thanks for the article…i’m going to have to think about this for a while too..

  2. Julie


    I really loved this post- the writing, the thought, the authenticity of voice, the reminder that “the world is a three dimensional place.”

    I think it’s so easy for us to fall into one of two camps when it comes to environmentalism (or any other issue for that matter), but as you write so movingly here (and without being preachy), the world is much more complex. That’s what I’m always striving to convey in my own work and writing. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Candice

    I love this one too, I often feel the same way when considering my own province. It’s hard to know where to stand when many people from my town (including my father) uses natural resources to survive, and I’m sure not always in the best way possible. So cool you had this experience!

  4. pam

    I’m not an environmental scientist, so take this with a grain of salt. My understanding is not that “smaller trees have nowhere to grow” but that the blowdowns are an essential part of the eco-system — you can see this on the Natinoal Park trails, plus, those trees are so critical that they’ve got a name, nurse logs.

    Fallen trees feed the forest floor, keep the rivers from becoming too wide and fast for the fish, and are a critical part of the ecosystem. Clearing them out also makes it easy for fire to speed through the area — some would argue that the fires in Yosemite and Yellowstone and Sequoia were made worse by the policy of clearing fallen trees.

    Again, I’m no expert, but I have spent a lot of time out on the Peninsula, it’s one of my favorite places. I love that you went out with a logger to hear his side and I do think that there are humans out there who want resource management that looks to the future, and that some of them are loggers.

    It’s, uh, complicated.

  5. Abby

    That nature looks amazing!! I would love that right now… I am loving your recent posts. 🙂

    • JoAnna

      Thanks Abby! And if you ever get the chance to visit the Olympic Peninsula, I highly recommend it.

  6. Brooke, WhyGo Australia

    Makes you think. It is tough to balance it out, even in our minds – survival now vs long term. Great insight going out on a ride with a logger, too. I’m always a little sad when I drive past areas where trees have recently been cut down, but when you take a look at the other side… it puts it in another perspective. Loggers need to live; I use paper every day.

    • JoAnna

      My guess is that most issues have two sides, but it’s hard to know that until you actually take the time to learn about them. It was an enlightening ride and I’m glad I went.

  7. lara dunston

    Terrific post. These are complex issues and I love that you’ve taken time to reflect upon them. Pam makes some great points – though in Australia, conversely, we clear the fallen trees because they actually fuel the bush fires that pose such a serious threat to life each and every summer. And that season is approaching once again…

    • JoAnna

      Thanks for your comment, Lara. I appreciate your insights coming from the other side of the world.

  8. J Lo

    I realize that this is a very old post, however, happening upon it, I feel compelled to respond.

    First, I am wondering, why the person had to move their home??? …If it was on national forest land, and it was non-conforming to their special use permit program, requiring that the cabin or home be of historic significance, or have been established before the program , then the property would have to be moved…If the house has to be moved due to the change in course of the river, after the discontinuation of using it as a logging canal, take into consideration that this river is one of the only natural food resources that the regions native american’s may feast off of. The river’s use as a logging canal severely diminished the salmon run and led to near extinction of the lake’s blue back, there for thousands of years before the loggers. Also, the use of the river as a logging canal, is what changed the course of the river, so, your friend’s friend may have built after the river’s natural course was changed by the logging industry. The river has only been allowed to go back to its natural state, due to the discontinuation of being used as a conveyer belt for the logging industry.

    Finally, what does your friend, the logger, mean that people do not live, they “exist” at the lake. The ENTIRE east side of the lake, outside of two residents, and some of the west side residents as well are PART TIME SECOND HOME OWNERS only. The forest service owns the land on the east side(lodge side) of the lake, and only allows part time habitation of the historic cabins, which are privately owned, as second homes. If thats not “living,” I don’t know what is… and if you are saying that the residents of the east side are not living, but only “existing,” let me tell you, my friend, that is a HUGE slap to the Quinault Tribe who has fought very hard for a long time so they can still inhabit and even reclaim much of the the land they LOST to the logging industry, and which was originally inhabited by their ancestors centuries and centuries ago…..

    Keep thinking, keep learning, keep seeing. While I think that logging fallen trees is a good thing, there are forces at play here of which your friend sounds very uneducated.


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