Book Review:
Olympic National Park: A Natural History

  • Posted 2/04/2010
  • Essay 9306
By Tim McNulty
University of Washington Press revised edition 2009
Paperback 339 pages
87 photographs, 40 in full color, maps, visitor guide, bibliography, index
ISBN: 978-0-295-98887-0

Tim McNulty’s excellent natural history of the Olympic National Park is back in a revised and up-to-date edition. Contained within one compact volume is an incredibly thorough and readable history of the Olympic National Park. Geology, natural history, and information on the ecosystem as it exists today are covered alongside the public and private land history of the park itself. Written in an artful style that covers complex and technical concepts, McNulty’s natural talents as a poet and essayist are put to good use in this all-in-one source for the Olympic National Park.

The Olympic peninsula was the product of a violent smashing of two tectonic plates 20 million years ago. Three thousand miles of sedimentary seafloor were compacted along the shoreline with alternating layers of new volcanic rock that formed the Olympics in a process that took five million years. This newborn mountain system was then subject to repeated etching and sculpting by wave after wave of glacial ice from the north as it advanced and melted over the peninsula.

McNulty points to the work of botanist Nelsa Buckingham, who demonstrated that during this period the Olympic peninsula provided a safe harbor for many plant and animal species that thrived in isolation during the ice ages of the Pleistocene and even earlier, perhaps as long ago as 5 to 15 million years. This accounts for the number of unique plant and animal species that exist on the peninsula and live nowhere else.

The warming global temperatures that freed the Olympic peninsula from its prison of ice also allowed a recolonizing forest to thrive in conditions that were warmer than today. Precipitation levels that may have been as much as 40 to 60 percent lower than today combined with the warmer climate nurtured an ecosystem that lead to near-Mediterranean-like lowlands. Higher elevations may have resembled the sub-alpine forests of the Rocky Mountains.

The first human presence on a the peninsula can be traced back to 12,000 to 6,000 years ago to a distinctive tool-making culture referred to by archeologists as the Olcott people. The remains of permanent fishing villages near the modern-day Makah Reservation have been positively identified to be at least 3,800 years old.

The area’s striking physical features and natural isolation enticed the adventurous spirit of the white settlers who yearned to fill-in blank spots on their map. In the late nineteenth century scores of different expeditions sought to explore what was the last great unknown in the lower forty-eight. The natural wonder they found there made the Olympics an early candidate for the emerging notion of natural lands conservation that was being developed in the American consciousness at that time.

Throughout its modern history the Olympic mountain range has undergone the full range of various official designations designed to protect natural areas, culminating in its modern state as a World Heritage Site. In 1897 President Cleveland included it under the protection of the 1891 Forest Reserve Act. In 1909 President Roosevelt established the Olympic National Monument, and it gained its official status as a National Park in 1938. Throughout the story of the park’s evolution as a protected space McNulty recounts the battles waged by the timber industry against the conservationists. The full history of the various attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to chip away at the territorial boundaries of the park to permit lumber harvesting is included.

Loving attention is given to the unique environs of the Olympic Rainforest, the rivers and lowland forest valleys as well as the extensive coastal areas. Plant and animal life as well as the history of the park are all given their own sections. There is even a visitor’s guide in the back to help you get the most out of your visit.

The newest edition of this award-winning comprehensive history includes new information concerning climate change and incorporates new scientific data on the population and distribution of mammal species throughout the park, as well as the controversy regarding a plan to reintroduce wolves into the park ecosystem.

This book, ambitious in both scope and detail, remains the definitive book on the topic. Olympic National Park is ideal for travelers to the park itself as well as for students of history, lovers of nature, and for those who share the enormous love and reverence that Tim McNulty has for the Olympic National Park.

By Alex Marris, February 4, 2010

Submitted: 2/04/2010

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