This last week, I went to explore the valleys of White and Chiwawa rivers in Wenatchee National Forest, northwest of Leavenworth, Washington. From the early 1950s to at least the mid 1980s, forest management here was controversial; should society protect any of the prized old-growth forests within the valleys or should all the trees be cut for timber. The valleys contained magnificent big trees — ponderosa pines, grand firs, Douglas firs, red cedars, silver firs, western hemlocks. The conservation community thought they should be left uncut while the Forest Service and the timber industry wanted to harvest these trees.
In 1957, the Forest Service proposed a Glacier Peak Wilderness under their 1939 regulations. The conservation community characterized their recommendation as the “starfish proposal” because it protected high elevation habitats along the ridges extending out from the alpine country around the volcano and left open to logging long forested fingers in the valleys. Two of these forested fingers were the White and Chiwawa river valleys. Dismayed with the Forest Service’s proposal, conservationists began to work with national groups to convince Congress to pass The Wilderness Act in 1964. Congress then added some low elevation forest to Glacier Peak Wilderness. In 1968 Congress added even more low elevation forests to the wilderness when they created North Cascades National Park and Pasayten Wilderness, and in 1984 they added an additional 112,600 acres to bring Glacier Peak Wilderness to the 576,900 acres it is today. In 2001, when the Roadless Rule was finalized, the Forest Service protected from logging and road building the Roadless Areas that extended along the ridges further out from Glacier Peak Wilderness. During these decades, the Forest Service gradually extended roads further up the valleys as timber was sold and harvested from these public lands. The current boundaries reflect the conflicts and compromises on how our public lands should be managed and protected.
The original logging roads provide access up the valleys for recreationists. The White River Road extends 11 miles from the northwest end of Lake Wenatchee. From the end of White River Road, I hiked 3 miles into Glacier Peak Wilderness last summer through protected stands of Douglas firs, grand firs, and red cedars. I remember one cedar that must have been 6 to 8 feet across at chest height, a tree that had grown for many centuries. The Chiwawa River Road extends 19 miles up the valley from Fish Lake at the end of the Chiwawa Ridge. Both valleys have the characteristic U-shape resulting from how glaciers carved these valleys during the last glaciation. As I started up both roads, ponderosa pines dominated the forest, gradually adding grand firs, Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and red cedars to the mix as the valleys gained elevation. In places patches of cottonwoods hugged the rivers and a few aspen clumps interspersed the conifers. Both roads became one lane and dirt half way up the valley but they had plenty of pullovers to allow cars to pass. Forest Service campgrounds occurred at regular intervals along both roads and they provide a base for hikes into the surrounding hills. A thumb of wilderness extends down Chiwawa Ridge between these two valleys and is surrounded by a larger expanse of Inventoried Roadless Area now protected by the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule. The Roadless Rule also currently protects the ridges between Chiwawa River and Lake Chelan. The Forest Service has proposed that the Roadless Areas that surround the thumb of wilderness extending down Chiwawa Ridge and those adjacent to the upper ends of White River and Chiwawa Rivers be added to Glacier Peak Wilderness. Congress will need to act on these recommendations to make these additions. Conservationists, including me, hope Congress will protect more permanently through wilderness designation more of these roadless areas than the Forest Service recommends.
I was trilled to see both rivers run crystal clear. These are important habitat for Bull Trout and salmon, and currently are closed to fishing to encourage recovery of fish populations. Waters in these rivers eventually reach the Columbia River and support salmon such as sockeye that return from the ocean to breed here. The lush vegetation along the edge of the rivers helps to keep the water cool and feeds the food chain for young fish. These valleys are worth a visit for a picnic, hike or to camp.