Regional fun-seekers embraced nature in record numbers
People had good reason to go outdoors and get away from it all in 2010. And they did.
Fueled by publicity surrounding the 100th anniversary of the 1910 “Big Burn” forest fires, bicyclists flocked to the trestles and tunnels along the Route of the Hiawatha rail trail near Lookout Pass. Monthly numbers topped 12,260 in August and a record 34,249 visitors signed in for the four-month season, which ended earlier than normal on Sept. 26 for upgrades.
Glacier National Park, in its centennial year, greeted more than 2.22 million visitors through November, up 9.3 percent from last year and beating the all-time park visitation record set in 1983.
The trend swept through big western national parks, where cash-strapped fun-seekers found value in camping, hiking and wildlife watching.
Yellowstone Park – which opened a new $27 million visitor center at Old Faithful – logged its busiest summer season on record with 3.4 million visitors by late fall, up from a year-end total of 3.3 million last year.
Mount Rainier’s recreational visits were up 3.6 percent from last year at 1.07 million, although off the record of 1.9 million set in 1962.
People seemed to be seeking a cheap respite from news of high unemployment and another looming round of state budget cuts.
By December, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced sobering proposals that would cut into the fabric of recreation and wildlife management. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is on the chopping block in the proposal the governor is sending to the 2011 Washington Legislature to consolidate state agencies and eliminate boards and commissions to save nearly $30 million.
Among other mergers, a new Department of Conservation and Recreation would be formed by combining the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the State Parks and Recreation Commission, the Recreation and Conservation Office and the law enforcement unit of the Department of Natural Resources.
The trout hatchery at Colville, slated for closure last year because of the state budget crisis, was rescued for a second year with funding from the Colville Confederated Tribes. But other facilities may not be so lucky.
State officials announced the end of the salmon in the classroom program, which has introduced the life cycle of salmon to 40,000 school children a year.
Bears were having a lean year, too. A poor huckleberry crop throughout most of the region appeared to be a factor in pushing malnourished bears in to conflicts with humans.
A female grizzly was euthanized after she killed one man and injured two other people at a campground outside of Yellowstone National Park.
Black bears in poor condition mauled a man sleeping in a campground near St. Regis, Mont., and another man outside his cabin near Lake Wenatchee.
Montana wildlife officials captured at least five grizzly bears in just two weeks this fall as the bruins were searching for food too close to homes in northwestern Montana.
At least 38 grizzly bears were known to have died in the Yellowstone ecosystem in 2010.
In a more bizarre case, a mountain goat, for no apparent reason, gored and killed a 63-year-old hiker in Olympic National Park.
Bighorn sheep took the biggest hit throughout the region, from the pneumonia making them sick and the guns aimed by wildlife officials trying to stem the disease by killing the sick animals.
Washington’s outbreak occurred in the Umtanum herd near Yakima. Of the 300 Umtanum sheep going into the outbreak last year, 42 were found dead and 69 were shot and killed.
With the statewide bighorn population at about 1,600, biologists will monitor the Umtanum herd this winter and hope for the best.
Around two thirds of several western Montana bighorn herds were wiped out by pneumonia and culling by wildlife officials.
Gray wolves remained in the headlines. As Idaho and Montana geared up for their second limited hunting seasons to curb the growth of wolf populations, a lawsuit thwarted the hunts and plopped the wolves back on the endangered species list.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, seeing no compromise, tried to wash the state’s hands from responsibility for problems caused by the state’s 1,000-plus wolves by telling federal wildlife managers, “It’s just time for us to draw the line and say, ‘It’s over with.’ ”
Efforts by Idaho lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to delist Idaho wolves have failed.
Meantime, rewards totaling $10,000 were offered for information in the killing of a federally protected radio-collared gray wolf in northeastern Oregon, but no arrests were made.
In Washington, more than 60,000 public comments on the state’s draft wolf management plan were released as two and possibly three or four wolf packs roam the state.
Officials expect to act on the plan in 2011.
Among all the commotion, trails, campgrounds and forest access were getting a major overhaul thanks to stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
By fall, hunters were finding trails cleared, bridges replaced and campgrounds expanded and repaved in locations scattered throughout the Inland Northwest.
The Idaho Panhandle National Forests, for example, received about $18 million in stimulus funding for immediate use this season, said spokesman Jay Kirchner.
The Clearwater Forest awarded $21.5 million in contracts.
Wildlife agencies across the nation, reeling from state budget cuts, kept some programs going by reaping some of the profits from record-setting gun sales that spiked from late 2008 into 2009 after Barack Obama’s nomination and election as president.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would distribute more than $472 million to the states and territories for hunting and wildlife conservation and education. The money comes from the 10 percent federal excise tax enacted in 1937 on guns, ammunition and archery gear.
Spokane County Conservation Futures nominations were weeded down from 36 properties to a list of 10 recommended to the county commissioners. The top two tabbed for possible purchase and protection are the 590-acre Knights Lake property along Lake Spokane and a 160-acre area in the Dishman Hills.
But while the Conservation Futures program continued to preserve open spaces and outdoor recreation for the public, the $11 million Barker Road Bridge project left Spokane River users scratching their heads over the erosion and poor river access in the wake of the construction.
More troubling, river advocates said, is the lack of foresight and the potential for no access in the future as traffic increases at one of the river’s most important access points.
Officials from the City of Spokane Valley pretty much said tough luck.