Jim Creek harbors endangered wildlife and Navy secrets


After the tour of the museum, we were off for a stroll in the woods, past sizable old-growth cedars and abundant sword ferns. Higgs talked about how, a few years ago, crews operating the transmitter reported seeing pikas – those rabbit-like inhabitants of high alpine meadows – down in a low valley. “No one believed them,” she said.

Higgs was surprised by what she found. “Sure enough, they were right. It was in a place no one would have expected: an old gravel pit,” Higgs said with excitement, clearly enthusiastic about the menagerie of critters that resides at this semi-secret military installation. Pikas love to build their nests in alpine talus gravel and boulder fields that protect them from heat exposure. Though pikas in the Cascades prefer to live above 5,000 feet of elevation, Jim Creek’s pikas seemed to be quite happy at about 800 feet above sea level in the transmitter’s valley, which sufficiently mimics their mountain habitat.

On our walk not far from the recreation center, we passed several massive red cedar stumps covered in moss, and reached a fast-flowing stream, a small tributary that feeds into Jim Creek. We took a break at a small footbridge, which the Navy recently installed after removing a culvert there. Higgs said most of the creeks coming off the surrounding mountains are too steep to provide habitat for salmon or bull trout, but that biologists found a robust population of pink salmon in the main stem of Jim Creek last year.

Higgs said that fish biologists were surprised to find so many pink salmon this far up. “It was such a big spawning year that they pushed up into the tributaries here,” she said.

Those fish are protected under a management plan created by the Navy in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Higgs said. The only angling allowed at the Jim Creek facility is at Twin Lakes, which is stocked with sterile rainbow trout for visitors.

As we make our way back to the reception office, Loverink tells me he’s brought his kids up to the lake plenty of times to fish and hopes to do more this summer.

“They grow big there and they taste good,” he said, flashing that grin one last time before I’m escorted to the security gate.

I leave behind the welcoming committee and its quirky characters straight out of a Netflix sitcom: the wisecracking military commander, the slightly earnest wildlife biologist, the cheery recreation director. As I drive down the winding road toward Arlington in the shadow of the Cascades, it occurs to me that Jim Creek is a quintessentially Pacific Northwest sort of place.

Where else will you find high technology being used for a clandestine, deadly purpose in such an idyllic place? Cascadia, with its damp rainforests to the west and its dusty sagebrush hills in the east, has long been home to the tools of annihilation – whether it’s the Trident nuclear submarines at Bangor or Hanford’s plutonium.

So I suppose if you’re going to build a contraption that can send the order to kill millions of people, you might as well use the land it sits on to protect pikas and pink salmon. Make it a place where you can play frisbee or listen for the questioning, urgent chirps of the marbled murrelet, another secretive creature that calls Jim Creek home.

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