Stumped by growth

The quiet war against the land continues.

EVER SINCE THE WHITE man first set foot here, he has waged an eco-war. The early traders rewarded the Indians for the slaughter of the sea otter, paying them with guns and rum. The Hudson's Bay Company, which ruled the Pacific Northwest for decades, devoted itself to the extermination of the beaver—not just for commercial gain, but also to make an "invasion" of British territory less appealing to American settlers by laying waste to a potential resource. Native American tribes were threatened with extermination if they did not become a part of this new economy: Unscrupulous traders often held them hostage with a "small pox bottle," a vial said to contain the disease that was already eradicating the tribes. Cooperate with us or else, our ancestors said.

As a result, we stripped away the ancient forests, polluted the waters and depths of the lakes and seas, rendered the wild salmon extinct, and emptied Puget Sound of much of its life. Things that had existed here in abundance for millennia were gone in less than 200 years.

We're here now, surrounded by the vestiges of these things. On a clear day, you can still see the wild Olympic Mountains, which are federally protected, and the Cascades, many of which are too. Lake Washington is cleaner than it used to be, and air pollution isn't as bad on its worst days as it was back in the early 1970s.

Read the history of this region and you are struck by the dissonance between how we talked about it and what we did with it. The early British looked upon the landscape surrounding Puget Sound and found it lovely, reminiscent of the English countryside. They marveled at how it provided for the needs of its native inhabitants. They were awestruck by the scale and magnificence of its beauty. They took cuttings of plants back to improve their gardens. Later, the settlers referred to it as "God's Country," a sacred land of abundance. These impressions were immediately followed by plans for exploitation.

Some early settlers cut down huge old-growth trees—so large their stumps were big enough for a house. They cut them down and moved in. You see wonderful old photos of these stump-dwellers, troll-like pioneers standing stiffly by their stump homes: log cabins built, in essence, with one log. They've added doors, windows, even chimneys to make their stumps habitable. Even so, you cannot help but see that they're living in a hollowed-out shell.

THE DICHOTOMY lives within us. It's not simply a case of loving a place to death; it's a case of loving a place without accommodating any of its needs.

For one thing, we refuse to consider that growth will continue to erode the very qualities we love unless and until we find a different way of relating to—and living in—this land. We must limit the number of people who live here or we must change the way we live here. Unfortunately, all the momentum seems to be in favor of further erosion.

The road-builders, for one, are in ascendance. Traffic congestion is becoming everyone's number one concern. But even on this one highly controllable issue, we will not change our collective habits, and we will not provide reasonable alternatives. We've passed I-695 in order to get our cars more cheaply and as a result necessitated deep cuts in bus and ferry funding. Another initiative by the same author proposes that even more money be spent expanding roads at the expense of transportation alternatives. In Olympia and King County, some lawmakers want to take back the HOV lanes for cars, and they're also considering more money for road building—despite the fact that the department responsible for the roads is one of the worst-managed in state government.

That department just conducted a $500,000 study to show how a new highway, I-605, would ease congestion. This hypothetical highway would slice through the Snoqualmie Valley, the saving of which was once considered the sine qua non of growth management and open space initiatives. It is on the "rural" side of the "urban/rural" line that was to be unbreachable. That such a route is even being considered is an example of how far the road-building forces are willing to go: all the way to the Cascade foothills, if necessary.

Recently, in a New York Times story about highway improvements in the suburbs, officials there said they had realized that decades of road-building had only made matters worse, and they had aerial photography to prove it. Building new roads to ease congestion is like buying bigger pants to deal with a weight problem, one of the officials said. Building new roads and highways and bridges doesn't ease congestion; it eats the land. What is so hard for people to understand about this?

The Growth Management Act itself is under attack. The builders and developers argue that people are being priced out of the region because they cannot buy affordable homes, this because of the artificial scarcity that has been created by the GMA. And while it's true that affordability is a huge problem, we cannot build our way out of it. The Silicon Forest can learn from the Silicon Valley, where one-room Palo Alto bungalows sell for up to $700,000. They've taken massive growth in the last 30 years, and the San Francisco Peninsula is now wall-to-wall sprawl. The price of bungalows has never gone down. Those "little boxes" on the hillsides of Daly City that Pete Seeger sang about? You couldn't afford one. That's the legacy of their high-tech boom economy.

The challenge for us is to find a way to treat the land here as an equal and reshape our priorities. Or be content to continue to be stump-dwellers, living well in a land we've impoverished.

 
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