Nethercutt makes Wild Sky campaign issue

10:30 PM PDT on Friday, August 6, 2004


Snohomish County, WA - In his bid to oust two-term U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. George Nethercutt has seized on an issue few might have freely associated with the Spokane Republican: Wilderness preservation.

Specifically, Nethercutt has vowed to get a bill to preserve and protect the 106,000 acres of wilderness in Snohomish County, dubbed the Wild Sky Wilderness by supporters.

The proposed wilderness, north of U.S. 2 in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, contains 80,000 acres of old-growth and mature forest, with another 14,000 acres of rare, low-elevation old-growth trees.

"My confidence level is high. I think we can do this," Nethercutt said this week after inviting the media to hear his ideas about how to get the proposal through Congress.

But Nethercutt's interest in the proposal is being greeted with serious skepticism and even opposition from Wild Sky supporters, mostly because of the way he would go about getting the measure past its chief hurdle, Calif. Rep. Richard Pombo. Pombo is chairman of the House Resources Committee and the man who can and has kept the proposal from moving forward.

The wilderness designation would close about 30 miles of old logging roads and permanently ban logging, road building and motorized access for most vehicles.

But Pombo believes that land that has roads on it shouldn't be given a wilderness designation. In all, Pombo is objecting to the inclusion of about 16,000 acres, spread in pockets across the proposed wilderness and which includes some of the lowland areas supporters say is the most sensitive.

But if that's what it takes to get the measure through the Congress, Nethercutt said he agrees. Nethercutt has suggested, and Pombo may agree, that the 16,000-acre area could be designated a "national conservation area," instead.

Wild Sky proponents don't like that idea.

"Why would we want to take out the biological heart of the whole plan," said the Sierra Club's Kathleen Casey.

Casey and others say there is no reason to alter the measure further, after Nethercutt, Murray -- who introduced the bill in the Senate --, bill author Rep. Rick Larsen, Wild Sky activists, snowmobile and off-road users and even the Bush Administration signed off on a plan.

Those who have been working directly on the proposal are dubious as well.

"The idea of a national conservation area is kind of an empty idea. I kind of don't know what that means," said John Leary, with the Wild Washington Campaign.

Leary said that unlike the Wilderness Act, which makes clear what is and isn't allowed, there are no such restrictions for a national conservation area.

Nethercutt agrees that the rules in a conservation area would have to be spelled out.

"It would really be up to Congress," to decide, he said. Nevertheless, "It is what its name suggests. It's going to be preserved in a natural state."

And Nethercutt's involvement does appear to have moved the bill further than the measure's author Rep. Rick Larsen, was able to. Larsen was unable to get a hearing on the bill while Pombo has been the Resources Committee chairman. Nethercutt was. Nevertheless, the measure is, for the moment, stalled.

"We think George Nethercutt's involvement has been important. The jury's still out on what impact he's going to be able to have," said Leary.

Nethercutt comments on protecting Wild Sky

Wild Sky in a race against time

George R. Nethercutt, Jr. / Seattle P-I

August 3, 2004

About 30 miles northeast of Seattle is the Wild Sky area, with its 106,000 acres of jagged cliffs and soaring trees.

For years, outdoors enthusiasts and local leaders have worked to persuade Congress to protect this area from the encroaching suburban sprawl. It's a race against time -- every year "civilization" draws closer, preservation becomes more difficult.

After years of gridlock, our efforts to preserve Wild Sky are now gaining momentum. Last month, the U.S. House Resources Committee held a hearing to consider the merits of protecting Wild Sky. Wilderness friends and foes presented their cases before the committee and its chairman, California Republican Richard Pombo.

I am proud to have helped make this hearing possible. Until now, House leaders refused to consider -- let alone pass -- any legislation to protect Wild Sky. After four years of waiting, Wild Sky is finally receiving the congressional attention it deserves.

But our work is not done. Congressional leaders may be convinced that the area is worth preserving, but they remain adamant that the current proposals do not qualify for federal wilderness status.

While I take issue with the committee's analysis, I am not dissuaded. Wild Sky is too important for us to surrender against this opposition. To preserve Wild Sky, we must work together to find a fresh solution.

Ever since I toured Wild Sky this spring with former Gov. Dan Evans, I've worked to find such a solution. In meetings this summer, I tried to bridge the disagreements between Rep. Rick Larsen, the House's leading Wild Sky wilderness proponent, and Pombo, the lead opponent. I've sought guidance and input from the U.S. Forest Service, area residents and outdoors enthusiasts.

Healing the wounds left by years of bitter disputes is not easy: What should be a unifying cause -- the preservation of our natural resources -- has degenerated into a divisive disagreement. I started with the premise that there are no bad guys in the fight to preserve Wild Sky and began to search for fresh solutions.

Of the 106,000 acres included in Wild Sky, broad support exists for designating 90,000 acres as wilderness. Indeed, legislation that protected everything but the remaining 16,000 acres of lowlands could have passed years ago. However, those 16,000 acres are some of the areas' most accessible, beautiful and, therefore, vulnerable and must be preserved.

One possible way to preserve all 106,000 acres is to create a Wild Sky wilderness and conservation area. Under such a proposal, 90,000 acres in Wild Sky are preserved as wilderness, while the remaining 16,000 acres are preserved as a national conservation area.

While innovative, such an idea is not unprecedented. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Evans forged similar solutions to preserve the North Cascades.

Following in their footsteps, we could permanently preserve the lowland areas in Wild Sky, serving as a staircase to the surrounding Wild Sky Wilderness Area.

Such a proposal could become law this year. The House Resources Committee has indicated it would pass it, allowing quick votes in the House and Senate. President Bush would sign legislation preserving Wild Sky this fall.

Some may question the reality of this timeline. I admit it's ambitious. But I'm convinced that only bold thinking can preserve Wild Sky.

If we reject new approaches outright, Wild Sky will remain stuck in legislative gridlock for years to come.

The great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt once said, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."

We can succeed, but only if we try fresh approaches and work together. Guided by history, I believe we can successfully preserve Wild Sky for the future.

(Republican George R. Nethercutt Jr. represents the 5th Congressional District in Eastern Washington.)



In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site