Another try for Wild Sky bill - Legislation to create the wilderness area in eastern Snohomish County is expected to pass the U.S. Senate, but it then heads to the House, where it has died twice before.

By Jim Haley
The Daily Herald Writer


Washington, D.C. - For the third time in three years, a key U.S. Senate committee has approved legislation that would permanently protect 106,000 acres of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in eastern Snohomish County.

The bill that would create the Wild Sky Wilderness will now go to the full Senate, where it has been approved twice before. It is expected to pass again.

The real test will be in the House, where the Wild Sky measure has languished twice without coming to a floor vote.

U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen and Jay Inslee, both D-Wash., reintroduced the legislation in the House on Wednesday. The measure is identical to the one proposed in January by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

"Washington state has a long history of bipartisan cooperation in protecting our environment and creating wilderness," Murray said in a statement on Wednesday. "Today's Senate action continues this tradition and brings us a step closer to preserving Wild Sky for generations to come."

If approved, Wild Sky would be the first new wilderness in the state in two decades. Wilderness protection would preserve the land for hiking, hunting, rafting and other nonmechanized outdoor uses.

The proposed wilderness, north of Index and Skykomish, lies above the Beckler River and the north fork of the Skykomish River. It would protect more than 25 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning streams and about 80,000 acres of old-growth forests. That includes a rare 14,000 acres of old-growth trees below 3,000 feet.

Opponents contend that some 16,000 acres have already been spoiled by logging and mining roads, and want those areas excluded. Murray and Larsen say a unique part of the proposal is that the measure would protect lower-elevation salmon spawning grounds, including the 16,000 acres.

Larsen and Murray drafted the measure in 2002 after extensive consultation with user groups. Special considerations are written into the bill, such as allowing large groups of Boy Scouts access to camping areas and letting floatplanes land on Lake Isabel, a high mountain lake within the boundaries.

Despite widespread endorsements from political, community and religious quarters, there has been opposition from some snowmobile and four-wheel drive groups, and three members of the Snohomish County Council.

Bipartisan pursuit of the wilderness was emphasized in the hearing room Wednesday when Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, praised bill sponsors for working with all sides and answering questions about the bill.

"I appreciate Sen. Craig's recognition of our extensive work with local stakeholders and bipartisan interests," Murray said after the hearing. "Rep. Larsen and I have worked to ensure that the writing of this legislation was an open, inclusive and constructive process."

Besides rugged mountain peaks, the proposal includes easily accessible areas for families to enjoy, Larsen said.

"We have done the homework and the legwork to create a hands-on wilderness proposal that will benefit Washington state families and businesses," he said. "In the past, wilderness has meant hands off, but Wild Sky is designed to be hands on."

Last year, the Wild Sky bill got caught up in the Senate race between former Rep. George Nethercutt and Murray, who easily defeated the Republican challenger. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., kept the bill from getting out of the Natural Resources Committee, citing the controversial 16,000 acres.

"There's probably less opposition in this wilderness bill than any in America" because of concessions made in its drafting, Inslee said. "This country is really a hidden jewel."

Conservationists were pleased by Wednesday's developments, saying the introduction of the House bill the same day as Senate committee passage adds momentum to the wilderness effort.

"There is momentum, but whether the momentum will carry the day is not clear," said Tom Uniack of the Washington Wilderness Coalition. The views of the two new Republican members of the state's congressional delegation may be critical, he said.

"We will continue to look at what the playing field in the House is like now," Uniack said. "We don't think we know that yet."

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or



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