Washington’s Olympic Peninsula contains seventy-three miles of protected coastline and the only temperate rainforests in the Continental United States. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary to the west, the Straight of Juan de Fuca to the north, and Puget Sound to the east, the vast arm of land is home to Olympic National Park, multiple state parks and five designated wilderness areas. Created by the convergent plate boundary of the Pacific, North American, and Juan de Fuca plates, subduction creates a unique accetionary wedge and geologically active corner of the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Prior to an extensive timber extraction industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the original human population consisted of several Native American tribes whose numbers were decimated by European disease. The formal record of a proposal for a new national park began with the expeditions of Lieutenant Joseph O’Neil and Judge James Wickersham during the 1890s. As hillsides became clear-cut, public dissent grew by the 1920s despite President Theodore Roosevelt’s Olympus National Monument in 1909. Illegal logging continued well after President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Olympic National Park in 1938 and political battles continue today over the fate of the forests. Bordered by several Indian Reservations and private lands, in 1976 the park became an International Biosphere Reserve and in 1981 it was designated a World Heritage Site.
Because of the isolated geography with a high mountain range dividing the peninsula, many endemic plant and animal species have evolved. Receiving over 150 inches of rain per year, the rainforests grow at the western base of the glaciated Olympic Mountains with drier meadows and valleys moving to the northeast under a rainshadow. The Olympic Marmot, Roosevelt Elk, Piper’s bellflower, Black Oystercatcher, and world famous Pacific Salmon and Steelhead runs serve as a barometer for the health of the region’s ecology.
Beset with oil pollution and garbage on the Ozette coastal loop, radiation and tsunami debris from the 2011 Japanese Fukushima earthquake threaten an ecosystem already affected by climate change. Since 2013, millions of starfish, considered a barometer of tidal ecosystem health, have been wasting as their arms and bodies disintegrate. “Researchers fear the epidemic may be the result of a virus caused by climate change.” Dead Zones—”huge expanses of ocean that lose virtually all of their marine life at depth during the summer”—exist all along the Pacific Coast of the United States. Currently being studied by scientists, the rapid changes affecting this fragile ecosystem may cause a cascade that permanently alters this region and its unique landscape.