ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest; Year 3!


The group poses on Sentinel Peak, >20 trail miles from any road, with Mount Anderson and the Eel Glacier in the background. From this vantage point, we looked down on a soaring Golden Eagle, saw swifts rising and swooping along the adjacent cliff face, found an alpine flower species endemic to the Olympic Mountains (isolated by past climate changes), looked across the now free-flowing Elwha River and the valley’s wide unbroken lowland forests, and compared the current coverage of Eel Glacier to historic photos taken from a nearby vantage point. We would also take time here to individually ponder the value of large ecosystem preserves (such as Olympic National Park), and the kind of remote wilderness recreation experience they provide as humanity enters the Anthropocene, and as nearby Seattle prepares to take on another 1.5 million people over the next 25 years. Photo Credit: Tim Billo

This post introduces our course blog (http://envir495onp2015.blogspot.com/) documenting the third annual offering (click here for last year’s blog) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day wilderness backpacking trip (July 11-19, 2015) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses today’s wilderness landscape as a “baseline” for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed at this critical juncture in Earth’s history.

Each student on the course led an evening discussion around a topic he or she was interested in, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) Native American relationships to nature and wilderness, 2) the literature of the sublime and development of sense of place, 3) ecology of invasive species in the national park and philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”, 4) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative separation of man from nature, 5) the importance of formal integration of nature (and possibly wilderness) experience into  curricula at all educational levels from pre-K to college, 6) wilderness and landscape management issues around water (and fire) in a changing climate, 7) the process and importance of developing a land ethic (inspired by quotes from Aldo Leopold), 8) a history and evaluation of wilderness recreation styles and management philosophies around recreation in wilderness, and 9) envisioning a wilderness definition that is more inclusive of permanent human settlement—or vice versa, a human settlement pattern that is more in harmony with elements of a wilderness landscape.

While in previous years, our discussions have often taken place around campfires, this year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics, not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain. Snowpack at high elevation measuring stations this winter was less than 14% of average, and basically 0% of average at lower elevations, leading to extremely dry conditions on the ground throughout the region. Hence, we adhered to the strict park-wide ban on open fires. One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and this year offered a particularly unique insight into what the average summer 50 years from now is projected to look like. August flowers were already blooming (or finished blooming) in July, and many alpine blueberry leaves were already taking on their fall colors, as well as being flush with ripe berries, typical of late August or September. Areas that would normally be covered with many feet of last winter’s snow in July, were completely dry, with much vegetation dry and crispy. Grasshoppers, typical of late August and September, abounded in the meadows, and caterpillar outbreaks were extensive, with obvious extensive defoliation of some species–particularly willows. Correspondingly, butterfly and moth populations were thriving. Stream and alpine lake temperatures were far warmer than normal this year, and swimming was downright comfortable. While our trip ironically began with 3 days of much-needed rain, it was not enough to extinguish the large forest fire burning in a remote area of the southwest part of the park. We grappled with the policy of the Park Service to control this lightning caused fire in a “wilderness” ecosystem that according to the 1964 Wilderness Act, should be left to its own “natural” devices.

The lack of snow made it an excellent year to assess the retreat of prominent alpine glaciers, such as the Eel Glacier on Mt. Anderson and the Lillian Glacier on Mt. McCartney. We were able to re-create historical photos of both of these glaciers, demonstrating massive retreat in the case of the Lillian Glacier, and possibly the last view ever of this glacier if this summer continues to break record high temperatures. Much to our surprise, the low snowpack also allowed us to “discover” an unnamed glacier near Graywolf Pass. The lack of snow had exposed the glacier ice and crevasses (a sign of downhill movement of the ice), as well as ice worms living in the glacier. Ice worms are a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest.

As in previous years, we were also able to study the effects of previous climate change events on range shifts of forest species up and down mountain sides. Large Douglas firs at high elevations are the remnants of a warm dry period 700 years ago, and silver firs at lower elevations seeded in during the Little Ice Age which ended only 200 years ago. Many alpine glaciers that expanded during the Little Ice Age have now massively contracted, leaving in their wake characteristic glacial deposits and a unique succession of species colonizing the bare soil. Along with the loss of ice and snow also comes a decline in a unique suite of species (in addition to ice worms) tied to this ecosystem. This was the first year in a long time that I have observed no Rosy Finches, a species that breeds on cliffs and forages best on the plethora of invertebrates that live (and die) on the surface of snow.

The Olympic Mountains and its many historical alpine glaciers were connected to the continental ice sheets that flowed through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!). Despite the intrusion of ice from the north, as well as the growth of alpine glaciers down valleys in the Olympics, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free during the last ice age, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations (we discovered rare populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper and Engelmann Spruce this year), and some of them have evolved into forms unique to the Olympic Mountains (including alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower and Olympic Mountain Groundsel, which we discovered in several ridgetop locations). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and it will be up to humans to decide whether to help these species out by moving them to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves), or to let them go extinct one by one. Certainly the ecosystem will not unravel at their loss, but whether we have a moral imperative to save them is a bigger question, which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which we have traditionally thought of as areas where nature should be left to take care of itself.

Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, in some cases irrevocably. It was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century, that Olympic National Park and other areas like it were saved from the ax and/or development. In only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a roadless area of over 1 million acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), not to mention similar areas in the Cascade Range. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that also makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene.


It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 9 inspirational students, from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical and mental challenges of the course. Miranda Knight-Miles, a student on last year’s course, and recent Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on the importance of wilderness, a commodity whose value has recently been questioned in some conservation circles, as we enter the Anthropocene. For my part, I have spent close to 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many values our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world)  to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.

Some stats from our trip:

Mileage Covered: 55 miles

Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (11 people x 8 nights) = 88 (for reference, 88 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park’s backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail before the last day of the trip: 4 (Despite ONP’s high visitation rates, the backcountry did not feel crowded!)

Cumulative Altitude gained: ~19,000 feet (about 18000 feet were lost)

Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet

Number of bird species observed: 49

Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.

Number of mountain goats observed this year: 1

Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: at least 4 (a record high for this course)

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