Restoring Olympic’s Amazing Coastal Wilderness

An SCA crew walks along an empty beach in Olympic National Park's coastal wilderness. They worked with NOAA to clean up marine debris in the area.

SCA members teamed with NOAA to remove an insane amount of marine debris

by Dana Wu, SCA Marine Debris Project Coordinator

This summer, a NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Community-Based Removal grant enabled the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to assemble four debris removal crews at Olympic National Park. This Park works with partner agencies such as the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS) to protect its unique habitats, such as its coast, which is not exempt from the effects of marine debris, despite its remote character and location.

With support from Olympic National Park, SCA, NOAA, OCNMS, Washington CoastSavers, and with guidance from the Park’s staff, crews were tasked with restoring Olympic National Park’s 73-mile long coastline. Each crew included eight to ten teenagers and two experienced field leaders, all from different parts of the country. All groups spent two weeks backpacking and working on different sections of the coast, from Shi Shi beach down to the Hoh River. The work was challenging, with some crew members just learning wilderness skills. They gathered heavy loads of litter, but were frustrated when they could not realistically remove all of the garbage they saw. However, they used this to evaluate their own behavior, with Maya, from the SCA/NatureBridge Marine Science Exploration Crew, expressing: “I am realizing I should use less plastic in my daily life.”

In addition to removing debris, crews listened to Olympic National Park Rangers and OCNMS guest speakers, who discussed topics including marine debris and its impacts on the ecosystem, stewardship principles, and the significance of wilderness areas. Making connections to the current project, Heidi Pedersen, OCNMS Data Verifier for Marine Debris Citizen Science Programs, presented items of local concern, such as ropes, oyster spacer tubes, and plastic shotgun shells and wads. These specific items were collected separately for NOAA researchers studying possible accumulation patterns and density levels among beaches. Additionally, the SCA crews collected and bagged plastic bottles, buoys, ropes, and much more. GPS devices were used to catalogue debris that could not be readily removed, to advise future management plans.

Once the collection of debris was complete, Olympic Park visitors, Park Rangers, community volunteers, and agency partners hiked in and helped to carry out large loads of debris. So far, these collective volunteer groups have removed over 5,203 pounds of debris from the Olympic coast! These efforts embody SCA’s mission to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong environmental stewardship by engaging young people in hands-on service projects. Crew member Grant felt inspired and summarized his feelings as having “…an unmistakable sense of pride to look over [his] shoulder at a beach we had cleaned.” Many thanks to all who fight against marine debris by supporting local community involvement and youth engagement opportunities, now and in the future!

This piece originally appeared on NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog.