The case for wilderness in northeast Washington

June 28, 2016 Alaina Kowitz

By Alaina Kowitz, Communications and Outreach Associate

Editor’s Note: Alaina hails from Kettle Falls, in the heart of the Columbia Highlands. She grew up working and playing on the Colville National Forest. She especially enjoys backpacking in the Abercrombie Roadless Area.

On a nice day, stand on the top of Queen Anne Hill in Seattle and you have the extraordinary privilege of being able to see two mountain ranges. Look west to the Olympics rising craggily from the Peninsula, blue and snow-topped. Turn east and the Cascades glimmer in the distance, promising mystically-named places like the Enchantments and Seven-Fingered Jack. It’s truly an amazing thing, to look both ways in a major city and see such breath-taking mountains.  

I feel lucky whenever I’m walking home from work at Conservation Northwest’s Seattle office and I catch glimpses of these peaks. But I’m also often reminded of other mountains that I’ve known, tucked away in the northeast corner of Washington. 

These mountains, known as the Columbia Highlands, don’t boast the same kind of rugged splendor that their counterparts to the west do. But there’s a quieter kind of beauty there, and just as much wildness. I had the fortune to grow up on the roots of the Kettle River Range, and spent my childhood and adolescence swimming in mountain lakes, hiking the Kettle Crest Trail, and bushwhacking in search of rare plants for the Forest Service. It doesn’t matter if you’re a skier, a farmer, a birdwatcher, or an ATV user—no matter your activity or livelihood, life in northeast Washington is surrounded by and celebrated because of the natural world.

"The Columbia Highlands are special, not just to me but in their very nature. They’re one of the widest swaths of undeveloped land in Washington, providing ample habitat for wildlife, and creating all kinds of recreational and economic opportunities."

The Columbia Highlands sit at the foot of the Rockies and are comprised of the Kettle River Range and the Selkirk Mountains. These two ranges are separated by the Columbia River, but together they make a landscape unique to northeast Washington. In the Kettles, Sherman Pass is the go-to destination for hikers, bikers, and skiers. The trailhead at the top of the pass puts you on the Kettle Crest Trail, which switchbacks up to Snow Peak. The trail along the wild Kettle Crest leads you through an amazing display of toothpick snags left in the wake of a massive wildfire in the 1980s, and rocky outcroppings along the way are adorned with penstemon and larkspur. My friend, mountain biking near Sherman, swears he glimpsed a wolf on this trail. I’m inclined to believe him. Both the Kettles and the Selkirks are prime gray wolf and Canada lynx habitat, two endangered species with shrinking ranges in the Pacific Northwest. 

Across the Columbia, the Selkirks provide more drama, specifically with Abercrombie and Gypsy Peaks. These are the two highest spots in the Columbia Highlands, and some of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen. The Abercrombie Mountain Trail takes hikers to an open ridge, where the subalpine forest ends and is replaced by scattered huge, gnarled snags. Shale overtakes the wildflower-strewn trail, which leads to a rocky, 360-degree view at the top. It’s hard to know where to look first. To the west, the Kettles roll by; to the east, the Salmo-Priest Wilderness beckons (home to wolverines, mountain caribou and the only functioning population of grizzly bears in the state). You can peek into Canada in the north and on a good day, the Columbia Plateau is visible in the south. 

The close proximity of wildness defines the people who live here. I’ve heard (and shared) many a conversation at the local brewery or grocery store revolving around cross-country skiing conditions on Sherman Pass, the latest huckleberry-picking expedition, or what wildlife was spotted that day. (Most exciting: black bears and moose. Not worth mentioning: white-tailed deer.) Hikes with my dad almost always turn into wildflower hunts for lady slipper orchids or balsamroot, and my grandmother keeps a constant eagle eye out for antler sheds. 

The seasons are dictated by nature’s movements. It’s spring when the bluebirds arrive, summer when the bear cubs emerge, and fall when the Western larches’ soft needles turn yellow (and when my grandfather pulls out his chainsaw, itching to get up on the hill to cut firewood for the winter). The path from civilization to nature is a short and direct one. We all take resources from nature, no matter where you live; in the Columbia Highlands, people go out and engage directly with that resource before using it, whether that’s through hunting, fishing, mushroom gathering, huckleberry picking, or wood-cutting. To me, that’s a very special and increasingly rare thing. And because of that engagement, the people here care about the landscape that surrounds them. 

"We need wild places to venture to, and we’re lucky enough to have them right now in northeast Washington. But that isn’t a guarantee for the future unless we do something to protect them permanently."

The Columbia Highlands are special, not just to me but in their very nature. They’re one of the widest swaths of undeveloped land in Washington, providing ample habitat for wildlife, and creating all kinds of recreational and economic opportunities for hunters, fishers, hikers, loggers, and others. They hold a slew of mountain lakes, river valleys, miles and miles of trails, and varying ecosystems. The Columbia Highlands and the Colville National Forest that makes up the bulk of them are more than big enough for people, wildlife and wilderness. Life is slower there, and peaceful. I think about it often when I sit in traffic in Seattle. 

Yet only three percent of the Colville National Forest is protected as designated wilderness. Compare that number to the national average of 19 percent and it becomes clear that this unique landscape deserves and desperately needs permanent protection. Designating even a fraction of the beautiful, wild places on the Colville National Forest still leaves plenty of room for ORVs, woodcutting, mountain bikes, and other activities that Forest users value, while providing a balance for ecological and wildlife health. And our health, too. We need wild places to venture to, and we’re lucky enough to have them right now in northeast Washington. But that isn’t a guarantee for the future unless we do something to protect them permanently. 

I want my children to be able to spend time in the Columbia Highlands, just as I did, and know that landscape has supported generations of family before them. I want the Columbia Highlands to be there for them, and for future generations of people who call it home. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment, and because of that, we need better protections of this unique corner of Washington.

The upper right corner of our state feels like a different world compared to the hustle of the Puget Sound area. The priority of those who live in northeast Washington seems to be a ubiquitous one—to not live close to nature, but to live in the heart of it. The Columbia Highlands area offers a special sense of quiet wildness, whether you’re a visitor or lucky enough to call it home. Let’s keep the Columbia Highlands wild, now and forever. 


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