America’s National Park system, the first of its kind in the world, has been called, “the best idea America ever had.” In March, 2010, UW Honors students embarked on an experiential spring break program in Olympic National Park to examine the history of this unique idea, as well as the mission and values behind it.
Students set out to explore the dramatic physical diversity of the park while also examining the diverse ways in which humans interact with such a place. Students moved from the rugged Pacific coastline to the dramatic Hoh Rain Forest and on to the Sol Duc and Elwha river valleys.
With a particular focus on the ways in which the University of Washington community interacts with the park, students in this program engaged in a variety of projects, from avian mortality surveys of the coast to tree core surveys in the Hoh Rain Forest and outdoor education mentoring with local teenagers in the Elwha Valley.
Underlying and intertwined with these projects is the unique natural history of the park, and participants examined how Olympic National Park is meeting the demands of its own popularity by discussing some important questions: What are the major challenges that face Olympic National Park, and what does it consider its most significant accomplishments? How does the park balance the diverse interests of the urban and industrial areas surrounding its borders? How has the social and scientific research conducted in the park contributed to this understanding? And why is understanding this diversity essential for understanding the future of this important place?
Over the course of one week students moved together throughout the park, meeting with park officials, University faculty and researchers, artists, and everyday citizens who care deeply for Olympic National Park. Through service, research, discussion, hiking, questioning, reading, and—above all—more hiking, they explored why this place matters in our culture and to our future.