Geographic isolation is a recurrent theme in the natural and cultural history of Olympic National Park. During the last ice age, large-scale glaciation that covered most of the region left the high-altitude rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains relatively untouched. This confined wildlife in the area to “islands in the sky” — refuges from the ice — which gave rise to populations of endemic species. Today, about two dozen native plants and animals are unique to the Olympic Peninsula.
The first evidence of human settlement on the peninsula dates to about 12,000 years ago, when the glaciers were retracting. In 1977, a farmer digging a pond outside the park unearthed the remains of a mammoth with a spear point embedded in its ribs. This and other archeological finds from across the peninsula, such as stone tools and basket remnants, proved that the region’s earliest settlers were active in every one of the park’s ecosystems. The evidence dispels an earlier misconception that native populations had stuck predominantly to the fringes of coastal regions, where Euro-American explorers “discovered” them in the late 18th century.
Whereas the native peoples of the Olympic Peninsula coexisted with the land, the new settlers sought to exploit its natural resources. Homesteaders and even gold prospectors tried their hand at settling the remote, rugged, rainy terrain, but toiling in the wilderness through long winters to eke out subsistance proved too difficult for most. The preserved structures of several remote communities still stand in the park today.
Extractive industries, particularly logging, took hold where others had failed, and with destructive impact to the peninsula’s environment. The shock to the region manifested in drastically declining elk herds, reduced number of salmon due to overfishing and the damming of the Elwha River, and in the clear cutting of timber.
To protect the elk form further depletion, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909. Logging interests fought back, lobbying for cutbacks in protected areas that would eventually leave much of the region’s lowland forests vulnerable. Ironically, it was the rise of clear-cutting — a practice seen as efficient and scientific by the logging industry — that galvanized public opinion to side of conservation in the 1920s. Hillsides shorn bare of trees stood in stark, disarming contrast to the majestic old-growth forests.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt founded Olympic National Park in 1938. Even with this new official protection, controversy continued over the logging rights on the peninsula — even within the park itself. Recent years have seen a focused effort to maintain and restore the park’s natural resources. Breaking ground in late 2011, the Elwha River dam removal project is one of the largest, most ambitious rehabilitation programs in National Parks Service history. The removal of two dams will restore the river’s ecosystem and increase the natural spawning grounds of local salmon.