Monday, November 22, 2010

A Reading from the Book of the Columbia Highlands

Today, Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest and I had the opportunity to talk about the Columbia Highlands on KUOW's Weekday program. To those who know this area, no introduction is needed. But to most residents of Washington state, a blank stare is what usually follows when you mention this area. Or worse, a false image. The northeast corner of the state from eastern Okanogan County to the Idaho border is a mountainous, forested, sparsely populated region. Politically, economically, and geographically resembling more the northern Rockies than the Pacific Northwest, it is truly a unique region of the Evergreen State. A good portion of the area lies within the Colville National Forest. Yet this 1.1 million acre public forest reserve only contains 40,000 acres of wilderness; a mere 3% of its base. Of all the national forests within the country, the Colville ranks among the bottom in wilderness protection. The Kettle River Range, the crown jewel of the Columbia Highlands was negotiated out of the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act. One of the biggest conservation shames in our state's history. Conservation Northwest and others have been working hard to correct this--and we are getting really close to having new legislation introduced to protect over 200,000 acres of this ecological haven as federal wilderness. I hope you join in the movement. Below are some excerpts from my book, Columbia Highlands- Exploring Washington's last Frontier. I hope they inspire you to explore this area and vow to protect it.

Beyond the craggy and glacial-covered Cascades, and north of the arid Columbia Plateau lies Washington’s Columbia Highlands. Spanning from the Okanogan River to the Idaho border, this isolated region contains the wildest lands remaining in eastern Washington. Rising to heights exceeding 7,000-feet, the Highlands’ Selkirk and Kettle River Mountains are impressive and imposing landmarks.

But it’s not the lofty peaks, the highest in eastern Washington that attract me here. It’s the region’s pure wildness and remoteness that I find so alluring.

The Columbia Highlands are a land of incredible biological diversity; where east meets west in the Evergreen State. A transition zone between the wet Cascades and the drier Rocky Mountains, the Highlands act as a land bridge for wildlife populations from these greater ecosystems. Moose and lynx, species more associated with the Rockies, thrive here. Flora too mingles in this ecological conversion zone. Sagebrush creeps skyward on south slopes, while north facing ravines shade dense stands of moisture loving fir and cedar.
Deer are profuse in the region’s open pine forests and rangelands. This land is a refuge for grizzly, wolves, and wolverines. Black bear and cougar roam freely within this wild country, and woodland caribou hang on to their last stomping grounds south of the Canadian border.
To the Colville Nation these mountains are sacred-a sanctuary for young warriors engaging in vision quests. And I too, have felt spirits in these mountains; in winds whistling through silver snags and in thunderous clouds swirling over high peaks aimed toward the heavens.

Words like, awesome, stunning, and defiant roll off the tongue when describing the beauty of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. The mountains of northeastern Washington rarely garner such lavish praise. Here the landscape is more likely to soothe the soul than stimulate it. The beauty in this region is subtle. It is measured in rays of sunlight filtering through a cathedral forest of ancient pines; a golden hillside teeming with deer; an alpine meadow kissed by morning dew and brushed in a rainbow of colors; or a colonnade of blue peaks fading into the night. Solace is felt in the soft breezes that whistle through shiny snags perched in heavenly gardens. The highlands are cherished for its vastness-its lack of human intervention-its rejuvenating properties, and its abundance of God’s living creations.

Yet, while the Columbia Highlands contain some of the most beautiful, remote, and wildlife-rich lands in Washington, only a mere fraction of it is protected. Less than 3% of these public lands are classified as federal wilderness. Just one small wilderness area of 41,000 acres is all that has been set aside from the ever-present and ever-growing threats of road construction, resource exploitation, and off-road vehicles.

For decades the Columbia Highland’s best protection was its obscurity. But as Washington’s population continues to burgeon, pressure is mounting to open up these wild lands to development and other incompatible uses. How we respond to these impending threats depends on how much we cherish and value this special place?

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