The Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, east of North Bend, is the closest Cascade mountain valley to Seattle, the region’s largest city.
Two decades ago, it was largely ignored by federal and state governments, and was rapidly becoming a mountain crime zone and trash dump.
The valley has experienced a transformation, although – as with everything wild and natural – protection is an ongoing challenge.
A touchstone in the valley’s recovery came last week, when the last, twenty-six acre parcel of state-owned school trust land was incorporated into the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Natural Resource Natural Area.
Its purchase price was $140,000 out of the Trust Land Transfer Program, funded by the Legislature. The money goes to the state’s Common Schools Trust.
“This landscape is a wonder for all to enjoy, and one that is now preserved for all generations,” said State Land Commissioner Hilary Franz.
She described the valley as “amazing.”
What’s really amazing is that the place has been saved, by citizens and public officials, by those used to stitching together good deeds and one guy whose specialty in Congress was blocking good deeds.
The Middle Fork in the late 1990s was awful. People hauled garbage there for dumping. A large meth lab was in operation, contaminating soil and ground water. A group of Russian criminal types ran an automobile chop shop beneath Russian Butte. The road, with deep potholes, was notorious as an axle buster.
The initial impetus to save the place came from the Alpine Lakes Protection Society (ALPS), the citizen group which campaigned for creation of the 393,000-acre namesake wilderness area, created by Congress in 1976.
Then-Governor Dan Evans brought a picture book to the White House in persuading President Ford to sign the legislation.
We had Republican conservationists then.
The Middle Fork is outside the wilderness, but not outside the purview of such conservationists as Redmond teacher Mike Town.
ALPS volunteers began hauling loads of trash out of the valley. They put heat on the U.S. Forest Service to be a better steward of its holdings.
An unlikely benefactor emerged. Senator Slade Gorton, R‑Washington, chaired the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Opposition to old growth forest preservation had put him on conservationists’ “Dirty Dozen” list. Seeking to burnish his image going into the 2000 campaign, Gorton found money for the valley. Cleanup of the meth lab cost a million bucks. The Forest Service put in a large campground in mid-valley.
In turn, the campground forced both the Forest Service and law enforcement to pay more attention to the valley. When Gorton paid a visit to dedicate the campground, he received praise from conservationists and one journalist long at odds with the senator. “Why didn’t you write that before the election?” he asked. (Gorton was defeated by Senator Maria Cantwell in 2000 in an upset.)
The second major preservation action came six years ago.
Senator Patty Murray and Representative Dave Reichert cosponsored legislation to designate the Middle Fork under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers program. They also sought to put the Pratt River valley into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Try as he might, Reichert could not move the bill through the Republican-run House of Representatives: The chief obstacle was dour Representative Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Doc didn’t like wilderness, wanted to gut the Endangered Species Act, and denounced President Obama for designating national monuments, even one protecting prized beauty spots in the San Juan Islands of his home state.
Murray made a project of Hastings.
After the Oso landslide, when Hastings asked what he could do to help, Murray persuaded him to push legislation that would prevent removal of the Green Mountain lookout, a popular hiking destination in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
The deed was done. Doc Hastings was due to retire from Congress in 2014. With gentle prodding from Murray aided by Reichert, he was at last persuaded to let Middle Fork protection and Pratt River wilderness go into an omnibus conservation bill. Seven years in the making, it passed.
The Middle Fork is a transformed place.
Its clearcutting of state timberlands once prompted the Department of Natural Resources to be given a nickname, “the Department of Nothing Remaining.” But the DNR has now conserved 23,000 acres in the combined Middle Fork Snoqualmie and nearby Mount Si Natural Resources Conservation Areas.
Outdoor recreation in the valley is also transformed.
If you bounded out to the end of the valley road, glorious hiking beckoned in the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Seven miles into scenic Williams Lake, and then a rock scramble up to LaBohn Gap.
One of the Chain Lakes tarns offered arguably the best skinny dipping in the Cascades, with rocks to dive off and 40 yards of icy cold water in between.
The upper road is long closed. But a network of new trails has emerged downstream in the valley, taking you beside rushing waters and beneath mountain cliffs. The walls of Mount Garfield can be ogled from down below, plus being an outdoor laboratory for rock climbers.
Consult the Washington Trains Association website for hikes in the valley, which is barely an hour from population centers of the Pugetopolis.
Kudos to the political figures whose good deeds are visible in the Middle Fork. The valley is a Slade Gorton legacy, however much we may disagree with his other deeds. It is an example of Senator Murray’s ability to stitch together legislation with unlikely allies. On a memorably miserable day, Murray and Reichert trudged through the mud where forks of the Snoqualmie River come together, trying to put a spotlight on the case for the Middle Fork.
The Pratt River is a neat place, with a high-up series of lakes.
In his eighties, celebrating knee replacements, Dan Evans went skinny dipping in one of them. Hilary Franz has burnished the conservation role of DNR, from Blanchard Mountain, south of Bellingham to the banks of the Middle Fork.
Still… as with most of our conservation achievements, citizens applied the initial pressure and began cleanup of the Middle Fork.
It has been amusing, during celebrations in the valley, to see its own “first responders” hanging back during speechifying by officialdom.
We live in a corner of America that has not been used up. A lot of us choose to live here because you can easily reach a place like the Middle Fork, or lose yourself in more remote and wilder places.
Our legacy of conservation is strong, but our work is never done.