Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part III: Landscapes of Vision

Landscape of Potential

Bears of Mystery

Winston could have had it all. A new and spacious mountain home with countless hidden valleys and rich in every seasonal habitat and food plant. He could have been, in Neil Young's words, "Mother Nature's silver seed flown to a new home in the sun." But he left, silver seeds and all. What need did Winston the Grizzly Bear have that the rugged and diverse North Cascades landscape could not fulfill? Perhaps he had a longing for his Coast Range home or a frustration with the bad press that grizzlies suffer in Washington. Whatever his reasons, Winston followed some unknown sensory map to his original range, rejecting the ecosystem that needed him.

Winston was captured near Pemberton in 1992 by Bob Forbes, a British Columbia Wildlife Branch biologist, then transplanted to the valley of the Lower Pasayten, too near the U.S. border for the comfort of Washington's wildlife officials. He wandered the Cascades country on both sides of the border for a season or two, visited Hozomeen, denned out the winter somewhere around Cheam Ridge, then crossed the spring flows of the mighty Fraser River bound for home. It is possible he left a legacy of offspring with Coast Range genes to bolster the stagnant North Cascades grizzly stock. More likely, Winston the Bear, like a cadre of bear biologists, failed to even encounter another member of his species. Maybe that's the reason he left.

I have spent my share of days in Cascades grizzly bear habitat, scanning in vain for an encounter. Not a single native species is known to have gone extinct in modern times here, though the grizzly and others are on the edge. The landscape is enriched for me just by my knowledge of its wholeness, if not by firsthand experience with every species. I have explored so many valleys, passes and meadows—Bald Eagle Creek, Snowy Mountain, Jackman Ridge, dozens of others—where I could have seen sign or maybe even a bear, but none was present. I am hardly alone in this regard. For a decade, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employed an accomplished and capable bear biologist, Jon Almack, to document and authenticate sightings and to endeavor to trap and fit a grizzly with a radio collar. Through 1995, when budget politics slashed his program, Almack never trapped or even saw a Great Bear, for which some blame may rest with funding and bureaucratic shortfalls. But the dismal reality remains: this haystack is not yielding its needles. Plenty of sightings have been recorded, including incontrovertible evidence such as grizzly tracks (as far south as Mount St. Helens) and distinctively grizzly food caches.

I recall a hot, late-1980s summer day packing out of the Chilliwack Valley watching berry-colored drops from a leaky plastic bag, stuffed with our day's unseemly bounty, drip onto my friend Victor's calves as he led up the trail. Was it griz or black bear plop that we delivered to Almack? In an agency freezer in Sedro Woolley sits a whole mound of iced scat awaiting the money and motivation for analysis to key out its bear bowels of origin. So long as the sightings are of scat, track, or even ravaged carcass, rather than a crystal-clear photo or a collared bear, skeptics remain as to the very existence of Cascades grizzlies.

Bears of mystery are these. Ed Grumbine calls them "ghost bears." We know they are up there, Almack thinks maybe ten to twenty on the U.S. side, but they have a knack for secrecy. It is probably their reclusiveness that has allowed these bruins to survive a long era of human depredation. This meager population will require more than reclusiveness to survive the decades ahead. If the B.C. side of the ecosystem has as many bears as the U.S. side (which it may, thanks to Forbes' yeoman effort to transplant five or so from the Coast Range), the total grizzly population is maybe thirty for this giant expanse of wildland. If we can assume the population has been at or near this level for several decades, then almost certainly the population is afflicted with the consequences of genetic inbreeding depression. These bears may lack reproductive vigor or could be experiencing a range of health deficiencies. Without a miracle or the human-assisted transplantation of perhaps dozens of cross-town bears to invigorate the gene pool, the Cascades will descend to the bloated ranks of ecosystems without grizzly bears. It will become a place where wilderness has lost its howling and growling qualities and where the term ecosystem ought to be modified to recognize a conspicuous absence, a less than wholeness, of missing volumes in nature's archive of place.

Bear Politics

Enhancing the Cascades' grizzly population with bears from elsewhere, a process biologists call augmentation, is a charged issue. It is a program which would be difficult to fund in today's budget picture and difficult to implement at this time when bear numbers have dwindled across their range, leaving no clear "donor populations." The idea also suffers from loud, if curious, opposition. Every year a new rumor surfaces, such as the one about grizzlies being air-dropped near Darrington or another about seventy bruins being prodded by Almack out of a semitrailer near Concrete.

Antifederalists fear creation of a giant, elitist park, its borders enforced by man-eating bruins. Ranchers tremble at the restoration of grizzly appetites they labored a century to eradicate from "their" range. Backcountry horsemen carry on about how bear recovery will necessitate trail closures, an allegation which is not supported by the record of management in Yellowstone and other grizzly ecosystems. Even urbanites seeking nirvana or weekend relief in the meadows, lakes, and peaks of high country submit letters to editors about their safety concerns should the bear population rise to historic levels. Too often absent from these salvos, both credible and creative, is an appreciation of the trade-offs involved. It is easy to speculate how more bears could conceivably put a dent in one's herd or hike. What seems to be lacking, as bear advocate Doug Peacock has pointed out, is an appreciation for the positive things we have lost since leaving the cave and domesticating the wild.

A 1994 state-wide poll revealed that fifty percent of Washington residents support government efforts to recover grizzlies, compared to thirty-six percent opposed. Still, those who fear nature as red in tooth and claw have been more vocal, and the Washington Legislature passed a bill in 1995 that prohibits the state from participating in any process for augmenting grizzly bears. This is not a clinching obstacle to augmentation, but it does underscore that achieving a responsible recovery program will require the building and mobilization of public support.

It is worth exploring why people should want a North Cascades grizzly population enough to pay taxes to support recovery and to perhaps make minor sacrifices in recreation habits. One reason is that the tide of extinction is still rising for this species. The North Cascades has only one of five populations in the lower forty-eight states. Of these, only two, Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide, have more than a few dozen bears. Of further concern, populations across British Columbia and Alberta are in steady decline due to encroaching oil and logging roads in bear habitat and continued trophy hunting pressure. The Great White North no longer exists. If we fail to protect grizzlies in the North Cascades, we cannot assume that a short trip across the border will reconnect us with this part of our heritage. We must recognize that this ecosystem, while not pristine, is truly among the last, vast wildernesses of the continent.

Would it still be wilderness without the Great Bear? I think so. It would certainly still be beautiful country and a somewhat natural ecosystem without the gray wolf. Maybe also without lynx, wolverine, fisher, spotted owl, giant salamander, Pacific yew, and Nooksack spring chinook. Wilderness is a subjective concept, not an absolute, and the human mind has proven remarkably adaptive. Ecosystems can also be adaptive and resilient and withstand the loss of some species, depending upon the species and its role. But at what point is a line crossed? When is it no longer a "healthy ecosystem" or a vignette of American heritage? We no longer find grizzlies (or bison or even much tall grass, for that matter) on the prairies, yet Earth keeps spinning on its axis. However, it is a rare American who feels no remorse for the taming of the great prairie, its wildlife and peoples. If only the receipts from Dances with Wolves could be transported back in time, a lot of wild plains country could be purchased for preservation.

The fact is our heritage is important to us. We see evidence in polls, in market research, in electoral choices, in vacation destinations—Americans care about their birthright. Sure, we voraciously develop and cultivate portions of it, but we do so with the trust and expectation that other places will be kept whole. Some of us live to visit these places; others simply feel warm and fuzzy to know they still exist. Most of us would be willing to make a reasonable sacrifice to assure there are blue whales in the oceans and grizzlies in the mountains and that some places remain natural. The dilemma of the often-heard debate over local interest versus national interest is where these wild places and beasts shall be. The North Cascades, in my opinion, should be very high on that list. People who want to hike or horsepack without grizzly bears have plenty of options—about ninety-eight percent of the contiguous states meet that criteria, whereas this is among the last few places where an ecosystem may be truly conserved. Grizzly bears are a part of this ecosystem.

Bear of a Challenge

Apart from the politics, grizzly recovery will still not be easy. While augmentation would help prevent extinction in the next few decades, it alone would not assure a sustainable bear population. Computer simulations suggest that a viable, self-sustaining population for most species may comprise as many as several thousand individuals. For a species like the grizzly bear, which requires up to hundreds of square miles per individual home range, there is an obvious need for habitat expanses that seem contrary to the trends of spreading civilization. Not only is the North Cascades among only five places in the Lower Forty-eight where grizzlies exist, it is among a small handful of landscapes where remnant, non-viable bear populations could exist. This fact is reinforced when standing atop Tomyhoi Peak on the United States/Canada border, looking at the undulating rows of ridges extending in every direction like waves in a sea. Without Highway 20, built in the late 1960s, this landscape would contain the largest roadless area in the Lower Forty-eight. It has as much public land and more protected wilderness than the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem of northwestern Montana, which is the last great grizzly stronghold in the country. Still, recovery of grizzly bears, like maintenance of ecosystem integrity on a large scale, entails more than great expanses.

Allowing that the grizzly bear is not confined to a particular rare habitat, its real limits are set by security. Security means freedom from people with guns. For the most part, this need can be met in the North Cascades and in many other Lower Forty-eight ecosystems. While scarcity of undeveloped, low-elevation valleys, providing snowfree habitat in spring, may be a problem, the real limiting factor on security is roads. A recent report by Northwest Environment Watch tallied at least 700,000 miles of roads in British Columbia and the Northwest states, which include 330,000 miles of logging roads. This is likely a great underestimate, since little information is available on logging roads in British Columbia or on U.S. private timberlands. Alone, the three U.S. national forests in the North Cascades have well over 10,000 miles of logging roads, reaching redundantly into valley after valley, crisscrossing endlessly up slope after slope. Many are old, poorly built, and of little or no use today. They channel or slide silt into streams and obstruct the natural movements of myriad species. In the floods of the Thanksgiving 1989 storm, and again in the fall of 1995, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest experienced dozens of culvert blowouts and road-caused landslides that did heavy damage to streams and will cost tens of millions just for road repair. As long as these roads remain, so will the threat of watershed damage. The long process of revegetating these old roads, recently begun by the Forest Service, is necessary to any recovery strategy for grizzly bears and the ecosystem as a whole.

Even if thousands of miles of antiquated and destructive roads were removed from the North Cascades, another feature would be essential to achieve a viable population of grizzly bears and a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem. The North Cascades must be linked, by way of habitat corridors, to adjacent large ecosystems. Until North America's wildland ecosystems are linked in this manner, where subpopulations of animals and plants are connected into a larger network, many will be isolated and too small for healthy predator-prey relationships and other ecological processes.

Evergreens on Sehome Hill

Linkages between large ecosystems are a daunting prospect. Such landscape-scale linkages must be wide and wild enough to provide security and habitat for the reclusive and specialized species which most need population connectivity at this scale. These corridors must frequently cross productive lowlands to link mountainous areas which, along with deserts, constitute most American wildlands. Those lowlands are, in many cases, developed with highways, reservoirs, and rural agricultural uses, if not actual towns. To link the North Cascades to the Columbia Mountains Ecosystem will require crossing the Okanogan, Kettle, and Columbia River Valleys, with orchards, tree farms, roads, and homes dotting the path. A link to the Coast Range will include protecting threatened forests in the Siska and other watersheds, crossing the settled Fraser floodplain, and restoring habitat in the lower Nahatlatch Valley. Linking to the Central Cascades involves spanning Interstate 90 and making sense out of the checkerboard of private/public ownerships, a legacy of century-old land grants to rail barons. Planning for establishment of these corridors must begin now, even if such plans cannot realistically be carried out for decades or possibly centuries.

Who said it was going to be easy? But in this inspiring landscape, there remains cause for optimism. The North Cascades has a brilliant conservation history, While British Columbia has been characteristically slow in its conservation efforts, with two small parks and a smaller recreation area, the U.S. government has been relatively generous on the Washington side. Citizen movements have brought establishment of North Cascades National Park and its associated two recreation areas, designation of seven wilderness areas, reductions in Forest Service logging programs, and more administratively reserved areas than anywhere else in the Northwest except the Olympia Peninsula. Even on some state lands, conservationists have battled the timber industry to a stalemate in recent years. Washington's largest expanse of state forest—the 150,000-acre Loomis Forest—sits on the eastern margin of the North Cascades Ecosystem, and about a quarter of the block remains roadless, providing valuable habitat for lynx, grizzly bear, and other rare wildlife.

Forty years of conservation struggle and success have laid a foundation for important challenges ahead. The Loomis State Forest and Okanogan National Forest are both making plans for putting roads and clearcuts throughout the largest unprotected natural areas in Washington and Oregon. The 104th United States Congress changed laws which, for twenty-five years, Americans have relied upon to protect the environment. Mining interests are in line to apply for permits to dig for and chemically process minerals on dozens of claims in the Okanogan country. Livestock grazing continues to damage land and streams. Forestry on private industrial lands is barely worthy of the word as clearcuts continue to spread like mange through maturing second and third growth in the foothills. Despite these continuing issues, conservation victories have been achieved against enormous odds and opposition, and can be again. Ecosystem conservation in the North Cascades is a possibility, if not a trend.

Bear Markets

The North Cascades may be reaching its stride to become a model ecosystem for the twenty-first century, a place where the example is set for tempering the relationship between modern Western economies and wild ecosystems. The economy of the West has dramatically changed over the last two decades. It is now highly urbanized, even more than the population east of the Mississippi. A higher proportion of Westerners lives in cities and suburbs than Easterners! But in both the urban and rural West resource extraction has decreased in economic importance, overshadowed by other economic activities. Perhaps the biggest factor in this transition is nature, which provides a lifestyle, healthful air and water, and recreation opportunities which attract footloose retirees, fax commuters, and E-mail entrepreneurs.

From a window in the building which houses my office, I have a novel view of Bellingham. The background is beautiful Bellingham Bay, framed by Lummi and Orcas Islands and wooded Sehome Hill. The foreground is a decades-old Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper mill, with logs piled on the side and plumes emanating from a dozen stacks. The mill is a remnant from when towns like Bellingham depended on timber jobs. But Bellingham, and the whole Puget Basin, has grown steadily for over a decade even as federal and state logging rates declined sharply and many timber mills closed.

The contrast between the old and new economies is everywhere in evidence. The Washington Department of Wildlife estimated that in 1991 wildlife hunting and viewing generated 42,000 jobs and 2.3 billion dollars of economic activity in the state. But environment has larger indirect effects. People old and young are visiting and moving to the West for its quality of life. Corporations are siting in places they would not have dreamed of ten or twenty years ago because they have found they can reduce labor costs. As Tom Power, chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, describes it, a quality environment is an important and substantial part of the wage, so the actual paycheck can be smaller and still attract good work. Incredibly, the counties and communities experiencing the greatest and most diverse growth are those nearest to protected wilderness. If salmon and bull trout are eliminated from streams due to logging and road washouts in their upper watersheds, these communities will lose something far more valuable than the local sawmill is producing.

North Cascades communities, from Princeton to Chilliwack, B.C. and from Twisp to Darrington, Washington, can adjust to and perhaps thrive upon policies which remove destructive logging roads, restore forests, streams, and habitat corridors, and protect wildlife and fish. The quintessential Northwesterner in this landscape of potential is one who uses and treasures wilderness but provides for his or her family without degrading its value. Hopefully this person may be educated to vote for the land and water, or at least to not demand continued federal subsidies for its exploitation.

I have experienced wilderness expanses which comprise healthy ecosystems. My memory traverses windswept Rocky Mountain ridges in northernmost British Columbia, where not a distant horizon has been touched by road, a land more traveled by wolves than people. And I have explored the remote wildlands of the Russian Far East, where brown bear, tiger, wild boar, leopard, and salmon come together in a landscape so wild that natural fire patterns are still evident. But these are places the modern economy is preparing to savage, repeating the injustice of colonial parasitism to yield riches for transnational corporations based thousands of miles away. Landscapes at risk, in need of political miracles, are wild only because civilization has not yet made its challenge. What is so unique about the North Cascades Ecosystem is that the very opposite is true: it has survived the rape-and-run state of economic growth and exists today as wilderness embedded in, and perhaps defended by, a modern urban society dependent on its natural health. The opportunity exists for the North Cascades to be a healthy, diverse, and wild landscape, despite its nearness to so many busy people. The challenge is to make it so.

Out of the Clearcut, into the Condo

The thing we have most to fear is that we have jumped out of the clearcut and into the condo. The economic and cultural factors which may save the ecosystem from extractive industries come with their own set of perils. The first question is whether the change is too late in coming. Dozens of salmon stocks, particularly coho and spring chinook, are at risk of extinction across the Northwest. Several are in North Cascades rivers. Low-elevation ancient forests, including the famous west-side rainforests and the majestic Ponderosa pines of the east side, are gone from private lands and are scarce and heavily fragmented on public lands. Tree farms are being replaced by upscale houses and agricultural lands converted to shopping centers and condos. We are paving the logging roads and running sewer lines through irrigation ditches.

More people, more cars, more buildings, less habitat. Some refer to the sprawling urbanization of the Northwest as californication, and only careful management of growth can prevent the pattern of destruction that countless places have experienced from San Jose, California to Bellevue, Washington. But in the roughneck libertarianism of the 1990s, growth management seems little more than a political organizing opportunity for developers and their private property bully squads.

In the 1980s, Washington grew by over 700,000 people (almost 400,000 from just 1988 to 1990) to a total of over 5 million, and the population is projected to hit 6 million before 2010. More than a million housing permits have been issued in Washington over the last three decades, and about 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat are being lost per year. While it is imperative we protect our mountain wildlands, it is equally important we manage the growth in the valleys. The 1995 floods, exacerbated by fast-draining clearcuts in the uplands and faster-draining roofs and parking lots in the lowlands, wiped out as much as ninety percent of wild salmon reproduction in the Nooksack River.

Just because the new resident makes his living logging data instead of trees, his home on the creek 20 minutes from town by car still contributes to sprawl, lowland habitat fragmentation, problems with air quality, waste treatment, and water allocation. We cannot have a healthy ecosystem "up there" without taking care at home. New residences are leaving too little water in the Methow River to meet the needs of salmon, and homes creeping up the Tulameen, Twisp, Chewuck, Entiat, Chilliwack, Sultan, and a dozen other North Cascades rivers will do more harm to wildlife than could an army of poachers. Deer and elk winter range is fragmented, cougar are displaced, snags needed by woodpeckers are cut for firewood, and salmon streams are culverted. With more and more people choosing rural counties like Chelan, Skagit, and Okanogan for their homes, the impacts of new roads and buildings on streams and forests—not to mention the impact of people and pets directly on wildlife—are spread wide and deep. While the North Cascades Ecosystem is likely not in the state of collapse facing other areas, elements of the ecosystem are clearly threatened.

The North Cascades landscape is subject to the same swirling changes and conflicting futures which engulf the entire West. This is a time of economic and demographic change, with the population and its livelihoods shifting like the sands on a dry beach. The changing society is demanding changes in politics and government, with wild electoral shifts reflective of overall dissatisfaction. People want government services, including environmental protection, but seem to not care for the government that can deliver them. Americans are demanding both the high-tech future and the pastoral past at the same time. How will American politics look when, or if, it settles down again? Will it protect the land?

The changes seem to indicate new opportunities for protection of North Cascades wilderness, but also more pressure on the valuable lowland habitats most impacted by residential growth. Certainly the public interest cries increasingly for conservation, but special interests including timber, ranching, and mining—those Charles Wilkenson refers to as the "Lords of Yesterday"—still call a lot of shots. Deep change may only come when community powers such as media, chambers of commerce, and real estate interests reframe their perspective to understand that nature, unmolested, is not their antagonist but their wellspring.

In a hotel cafe a couple years back, I was conversing with a rural North Cascades county sheriff. I would not expect this man to be a member of a conservation group, but like a lot of timber town people, the sheriff enjoys the wilderness and has fond memories of time in the backcountry. He told me, to my surprise, that he would like to see protection for the large complex of roadless Okanogan country called The Meadows, where he had spent a lot of time in his youth. But his greatest concern was for his community. If it turned into a tourist gateway, like Gattlinburg, Tennessee or West Yellowstone, he knew he would have to leave.

To the sheriff, that meant the timber and ranching base of the economy needed to be preserved. But rural communities can no more expect to recapture their 1970 economies than the Rust Belt can expect to reopen those old steel mills. Whether former timber towns become tourist traps or healthy, diverse communities is ultimately in their own hands. But either way, the first step is to protect the land.

MITCH FRIEDMAN is a conservation biologist and founder and Executive Director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, based in Bellingham, Washington. He is a widely published author and has edited two books on conserving the Greater North Cascades Ecosystem. He is a board member of The Wildlands Project.

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North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980