It’s about sixty miles from my home in Olympia to the town of Ashford, in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. It’s an easy trip for motorists, a challenge for cyclists, and unthinkable journey for a chubby little seabird flying non-stop from Puget Sound or the Pacific Coast. But the marbled murrelet makes this long journey from salt water to the forest to its unlikely nesting site—a wide branch high in an old-growth tree. Though most of Washington’s population of murrelets nests closer to the coast, biologists have detected murrelets in an 80-acre patch of old-growth forest, known as the “Ashford 80.”
These eighty acres are part of the Nisqually Land Trust’s recent acquisition of 600 acres between Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Elbe Hills State Forest. This purchase, from Hancock Forest Management, brings a total of 1940 acres of timberland into protection for the federally threatened marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl as well as nine other species of concern. The Mt. Rainier Gateway Reserve, as the property is officially called, was purchased by the Land Trust through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a donation from the Nisqually Indian Tribe; the Washington Department of Natural Resources will hold a conservation easement on the property.
On a recent foggy July morning, I was part of an expedition to celebrate the Reserve and the marbled murrelet at the Copper Creek Hut, a cozy gathering place that is part of the Mount Tahoma Trail Association’s hut-to-hut ski-trail system. An extensive stretch of the trail system is now part of the Reserve property. The low, grey clouds accompanied us through Yelm, along the Nisqually River, and past Lake Alder, but as we began the climb up toward Ashford, blue skies greeted us as did the promise of a view of the mountain. From Ashford, we bumped along a rugged road in a four-wheel drive for a good 20 minutes, imagining how very different this would be on cross-country skis or snowshoes—and on top of ten feet of snow.
The sun-drenched hut was a welcoming sight as was the new Mount Rainer Gateway Reserve sign and the view of Mt. Rainier. This close-up view of the mountain’s west side was capital-S Scenery. It was so breathtaking that I couldn’t take in with my eyes alone so I found myself taking deeper and deeper breaths to better and more fully absorb its magnificence and beauty. I had never really thought about it before, but breathing really deeply must be a physical response to breathtaking sights.
The view of the “Ashford 80” kept my breathing deep, almost to the point of hyperventilating. There, maybe a quarter mile below the ridge where I was standing, was a dark, green and angular patch of trees rising above the recently logged hillside. This was murrelet nesting habitat—eighty acres, sixty miles from the water. It was mind boggling. There, somewhere in that dense wood, were wide, moss-covered branches where a pair of murrelets could lay a single egg and raise a chick. There, in the shade of the towering evergreens, was the summer home of a seabird with a hellish daily commute to saltwater. There, each morning around sunrise, an adult murrelet would land with a whole, small fish for its chick. There, for a month, a murrelet chick would sit, still and silent, waiting for the moment when it’s flight feathers would carry it to the sea. There, in that piece of forest, was a future for the murrelet.
I have lived within sight of Mt. Rainier for just over three years now. I look for it when I am out driving or biking. Even a brief glimpse of it, peeking briefly out of the clouds, will make my day. As will a walk around the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, or a crossing of a Nisqually River bridge, knowing that the murrelets may follow this river to the mountain. And now, with a view of the Ashford 80 emblazoned in my mind, I see the mountain not as a destination for hikers, day-trippers, skiers, or snow-shoers, but as a home for the murrelet, a gateway for hope.
NOTE: Access to Copper Creek Hut is winter-only and restricted to members of the Mount Tahoma Trail Association. For information on joining, go to http://www.skimtta.com/. For information on the Nisqually Land Trust properties, projects, and upcoming events, go to http://www.nisquallylandtrust.org/