The Skykomish River in western Washington state shows what's possible to both prevent and encourage with federal protection as a Wild and Scenic River.

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It’s not quite a yodel, and it’s not a scream, either. Nope, that’s joy, yelled across the aquamarine froth as Michael Harms zooms, twirls and plunges through the maelstrom of the Skykomish River in his river kayak.

“That was big and fluffy!” shouts fellow kayaker Omar Jepperson above the river’s roar. His 6-foot-4-inch frame snugs into his tiny boat, a sports car of a craft made for maneuvering places like Boulder Drop, a collection of rapids that in the Skykomish spring runoff surge with Class Five ferocity — near the top of runnable whitewater.

Not that runnable means doable for the timid: The rapids here earned their names: Lunch Hole, where lunch is lost, not eaten. Mercy Chute, where one begs for safe passage. Flypaper, where boats jam and grind against granite boulders. And Hand of God, a shoreside hidey hole.

The third kayaker on this trip, Tom O’Keefe, has already spun through the river’s churn, and bobs in his boat, comfortable as a marine mammal. Whitewater fanatics, Jepperson and O’Keefe once scabbed together wheelbarrow parts and plywood to haul their boats like mules through eight miles of backcountry to reach the highest, steepest, fastest whitewater of the Elwha in the Olympic Mountains.

O’Keefe keeps a life-list of rivers he’s run the way birders do species: 250 so far, including about 80 in Washington. But the Skykomish is a personal favorite.

No wonder, with more species of salmon that travel higher into its headwaters than they do in any other river in the Cascades. And abundant flows year ’round, flows that explode in whitewater in the upper reaches, and silk to a glassy green glide in the lower river. For the Skykomish runs clear, and its colors change in the light like a gemstone’s.

Yet when champions of the recently designated Wild Sky Wilderness drew the boundaries of the state’s first new federally protected wild lands in a generation, they didn’t protect the river that runs right through it. For that, they would have to turn to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but providing protection for the river barely came up in the discussion. That’s typical.

Oregon boasts nearly 50 federally protected Wild and Scenic Rivers, more than any other state. But Washington? Just six.

FORTY YEARS old this year, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed into law Oct. 2, 1968, by President Lyndon Johnson, has been little used in Washington as a conservation tool.

It’s not for a lack of eligible rivers. Washington is home to 112 rivers that meet the criteria for Wild and Scenic designation by the U.S. Forest Service: They have at least one, and usually more, “outstandingly remarkable” values, in the language of the law. Scenic, recreational, historic, cultural and habitat values all count toward designation.

Nationally, the law protects some 11,000 miles of 165 rivers in 38 states, or a little more than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s rivers. Nothing compared to the 600,000 miles, or 17 percent of rivers already altered by more than 60,000 dams, large and small.

In Washington, eligible rivers braid through every corner of the state, and they are rivers as beautiful as their names: Snoqualmie, Skykomish and Nooksack, wild mountain rivers of the North Cascades. Green, Toutle, Lewis and Cispus, winding from the white domes of Rainier, Adams and St. Helens in Washington’s volcano country. Hoh, Elwha, Quinault and Queets, juicy, green rain-forest rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, to name just a few.

“Washington has some of the finest natural rivers in America,” says Tim Palmer, author of 19 books about rivers, conservation and adventure travel, and a lifelong river rat. But so far, he says, the state has lacked the one-two punch needed for river protection: zealous local advocates and support from its congressional delegation.

Washington is no conservation slouch: With about half as much federal land as Oregon, Washington has about twice as much federally protected wilderness. But the history of the conservation movement in Washington has been about protecting old growth and wilderness, not rivers.

Three words explain why: Sen. Mark Hatfield. In 1988, the former Oregon Republican pushed through the U.S. Senate a single omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers bill that protected all or parts of 44 rivers and tributaries.

In Washington, it also takes just a few words to explain our forest fixation, and dearth of Wild and Scenic rivers here: the northern spotted owl.

Doug North, a King County Superior Court judge, longtime river-conservation activist and author of paddling guidebooks for Washington, remembers the history:

“Hatfield decided to make this his baby, obviously it would be nice to do something similar, and in Washington we hoped in the 1990s that we would. We were building momentum. But as we were mobilizing, there was this big controversy over cutting old growth, and the spotted owl. The congressional reaction was, ‘We can’t deal with that right now, we have to deal with old growth and the spotted owl.’ “

A Northwest Forest Plan and some four years later, the GOP swept Congress in 1994. The political momentum for river protection was lost. “The politics weren’t going to go anywhere,” North says.

Conservation director Tom Uniak of the Washington Wilderness Coalition agrees.

“There is only so much energy in any community or battery,” Uniak says. “All that timber stuff was really labor intensive, it was all hands on deck, that’s definitely part of the pie chart of what happened.”

But he and other conservation advocates see a revival of interest in protecting rivers, as the climate bakes and asphalt metastasizes throughout the Puget Sound Basin. The win on designation of the Wild Sky Wilderness also has reignited a sense of what’s politically palatable, and possible.

“It’s a huge positive, protecting wild lands for quality of life we all enjoy,” Uniak says. “Wild Sky took nine years, but it educated the public about what wilderness is, and the benefits are coming through, whether it’s about habitat, quality of life or water quality. Those are things you don’t have to say twice anymore. They are linking up with watershed protection, and protecting Puget Sound, even more with climate change.”

A bit of a river renaissance is under way.

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert is the first Washington Republican in recent memory to sponsor legislation to designate a Wild and Scenic river, as part of his effort to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Reichert wants to push its boundaries down the hill, and designate the Pratt in King County a Wild and Scenic river. The bill has support on both sides of the aisle.

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell also secured Wild and Scenic designation for a 20-mile stretch of the upper White Salmon River and one of its tributaries, Cascade Creek, in 2005.

In both cases — the White Salmon and the proposal for the Pratt — the lands lie almost entirely within federal ownership. The harder cases for protection include stretches of river with private land, mostly because of misconceptions about what Wild and Scenic designation means.

“One of the things the opponents want to do is say, ‘This means the government comes in and takes your property away from you and bulldozes your house and dumps you in the river,’ ” North says. “None of which is true, but people get riled up pretty quickly.”

While wilderness designation, once achieved, locks in protection, Wild and Scenic designation is more of a starter kit.

About the only thing a Wild and Scenic designation does for sure is block federal dam building. But designation doesn’t affect how private land is used, or change local zoning. It does mandate a planning process, led by the federal agency with the largest land ownership in the area.

The plan is intended to make the most of a particular river’s assets, protect it from harm and recover what’s lost. But it’s up to those involved in the planning process to draw the boundaries of the protected area, usually within a corridor about a quarter mile deep, although it is sometimes bigger or smaller. They also craft the details of the plan — including just how protective it is.

But should we bother?

THE SKYKOMISH provides several object lessons in what can happen to a river when we don’t protect it. Consider the clear-cut on private land, shaved all the way to the guard rail of Highway 2, and in plain view from Boulder Drop.

Then there is Sunset Falls. It is surely one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state. Yet there is no access for the general public at the base of the falls, not even a viewpoint, let alone a launch site for boaters who come from all over for a chance to run the Sky.

Or consider the concrete fish trap that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife stuck onto the face of the falls in 1958 to haul salmon into the river above — a place they probably never went on their own.

Then there’s the suburban sprawl pushing farther out from Monroe in Snohomish County, leaking ever eastward along Highway 2.

A Wild and Scenic designation wouldn’t necessarily have stopped or fixed any of that. But it would provide the only forum where anyone with a vision for the whole river, beyond their city, county, town or timber tract can help guide the river’s future.

A little burg like Index, right on the front porch of the new Wild Sky Wilderness, might be a place to start thinking about a protection plan for the river, some locals say. This is a town which, after all, with a year-round population of 157, raised more than $550,000 to prevent clear-cut logging of a ridge that would have spoiled the town’s postcard-perfect views.

The area’s gold-mining and logging boom times are over. Today it’s the climbers, zipping up and down like window washers on the sheer rock walls just outside town, the white-water seekers and other outdoor enthusiasts who keep the economy of Index alive.

The river is also its town square and poet laureate. People here know the voice and look of this river as intimately as they would any family member.

“We all have a stake in protecting it,” says Bill Cross, who has lived in Index since 1976. The town’s maintenance man, he coddles the river with sandbags when it floods. But that didn’t stop him from living right along its banks. “It’s quite loud sometimes,” he says fondly.

Town clerk Lisa Stowe remembers hearing what she thought was thunder until the vibration of the floor under her desk at city hall clued her in: The restless river was rolling boulders around again.

The river defines not only the town’s economy but its seasons, Stowe says. There are people who can tell you what time of year it is by the color of the river when they are swimming in it: pure emerald in the summer, and gold green in the fall, because of the reflection of the leaves.

Chris Jonason, founder of a whitewater and wilderness outfitting business in the heart of Index, long ago took the river for a mentor. “It gets big and pushy,” he says. “It’s been my teacher and my proving ground. You have to really be there when you are on the river. If you are off, mentally, if you are not grounded, you’ll get spanked. Turned over. Water up your nose.”

As she spoke, dozens of raft concession customers were gathering on the river’s banks, paying $85 a head for a guided trip through the whitewater.

Rib Horst readied his rescue gear and pontoon boat for a yard sale: That’s when whitewater upends a raft, scattering everything and everyone in it everywhere.

The rafters fixed Horst and three rescue kayakers along for their ride with devoted looks, as their guides drilled them on whitewater safety. The river growled in the background, smoking with mist in a summer downpour.

“When you hit the water, it’s cold, remember to breathe. A lot of people forget that,” guide Bucky Klein tells them with matter-of-fact good cheer. “In, out. Remember?” Then he shoves off with his wide-eyed customers, down river.

Bill Corson, owner of the rafting concession, tore off in a pickup truck to meet the rafters as they plunged through Boulder Drop.

The first raft through that afternoon, from another company, headed straight for the worst whitewater and flipped immediately, customers flying in every direction. The whole kit and caboodle was instantly swept away in the 50-degree water, their guide’s work cut out for him.

Corson’s flotilla of customers arrived soon after, all helmets and flying paddles. His guides took each raft through a more sedate side channel with seeming ease. Corson looked relieved.

“I get more nervous during this than in armed raids on suspects,” said Corson, a Redmond Police officer in his day job.

O’Keefe remembers well his first river spanking. It all started with a woman, of course, whom he was sure he would impress with his manly whitewater skills. “I’d never been in a whitewater kayak before, but I’m like, I can totally do this, being the confident male that I am.”

Next second he was upside down, underwater. “And I’m thinking, OK, I’ve seen this on TV.”

Dig, dig, dig, with his paddle. Nothing. No flip, no snappy roll. Nada. “I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’m still underwater.’ It was a little bit disconcerting. I’m like, ‘OK, now I’m not going to roll up. I have to get out of this thing.”

In the end, O’Keefe swallowed his pride, yanked himself out of the boat — and swam.

It was the beginning of a love affair — with whitewater. And Boulder Drop, a place that no matter how many times he’s run it, entices him. The river is always changing, always challenging, O’Keefe says. Alive.

SOME WONDER if it will stay that way. American Rivers, the conservation group, named the Skykomish one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country in 2005 because of rampant development in the lower river and threats to water quality. Growth in the Highway 2 corridor has continued to boom ever since.

Richard Simms lives in Mukilteo, but he calls the Skykomish his home river. Founding board member and president of the Wild Steelhead Society, to him the Skykomish is a place where even a busy father with a full-time job and small children can still have an honest chance at catching a wild steelhead on a fly.

Catching fish isn’t half as important as the opportunity, Simms says. And he has slowly watched that chance fade, first shortened by one month, then two, as the state has restricted seasons on wild fish to protect dwindling runs.

That was a jolt for Simms, who with his organization helped pen the endangered declaration for the Skykomish adopted by American Rivers. He would like to see the river protected, instead of the usual behavior — using up one fishing hole and going on to the next one.

“Did you notice they moved a mountain of dirt when they built the new Fred Meyer in Monroe? Well maybe we didn’t notice, but the steelhead did,” Simms says.

“Nothing against Fred Meyer. But little by little we just cover things with impervious surfaces, we have more runoff, we do these things and the one small thing isn’t so bad, it’s when it’s compounding, and we take away the wetlands, and we silt the tributary streams. We never look at the river as a whole.”

One of his favorite lures is a Skykomish Sunrise, a fly he ties with colors as beautiful as the river with the dawn pretty on it. Four years ago, he caught his biggest steelhead in the state of Washington in February, in the Skykomish River, a 40-incher.

“It’s such a close-by river, and so many people value it. You’d think there would be more interest in protecting it.”

Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff writer. She can be reached at lmapes@seattletimes.com. Mark Harrison is a Times staff photographer.