Murray tries again with Wild Sky wilderness bill



WASHINGTON -- Sen. Patty Murray yesterday launched yet another bid to win congressional approval for Wild Sky, a popular but tormented effort to create Washington's first new wilderness area in a generation.

"Wild Sky reflects the great tradition of preserving places that make Washington state unique," Murray, D-Wash., said of the proposal to protect 106,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The initiative, which Murray first introduced in 2002, has won broad support in the state but met with opposition in Congress.

Murray said she would keep pressing the issue until it passes, although she conceded that the politics of wilderness protection are complicated and protracted. Earning protection for the Hanford Reach on the Columbia River, she said, took eight years.

"I am committed to passing this legislation and protecting Wild Sky because it is the right thing to do for our environment, our economy and future generations," she said.

Advocates say that protecting the property is critical because it is only a 90-minute drive from Seattle and subject to development pressure unless it is more aggressively protected.

But while Murray said the bill's prospects in the Senate are good, where it has already passed twice, its future in the House is far less certain.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said he would consider Wild Sky only if it is trimmed of roughly 13,000 acres that contain logging roads and other marks of modern intrusion.

Pombo, a rancher backed by property rights advocates, opposes granting any federal land wilderness status unless it is untouched by humans -- a standard that the original Wild Sky proposal does not meet.

Last year, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., offered a trimmed-down proposal designed to find a way around Pombo's resistance. The bill was withdrawn after Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen and Jay Inslee of Washington objected. The matter was complicated further by election-year politics. Nethercutt was challenging Murray for her seat when he became involved in Wild Sky.

Yesterday, Pombo's spokesman, Brian Kennedy, said the chairman would consider only wilderness proposals that conform to his interpretation of the law. That stricter outlook means only untouched land would qualify for wilderness protection, one of the highest levels of protection offered in federal law.

Larsen, who introduced companion legislation to Murray's twice before, said he would reintroduce the bill in the near future. A spokeswoman declined to say whether the bill would be altered from its original form. But Larsen, echoing Murray, has insisted that the 106,000-acre proposal is the best approach.

The goal, according to Murray and Larsen, is to preserve the land so that the 2.4 million people who live within two hours' drive of the valley can experience views and vistas that greeted the first settlers.

Not surprisingly, Murray's action drew praise from conservation groups.

"We made real strides forward last year in both the House and the Senate," said the Sierra Club's Jim Young. "We hope that the Wild Sky legislation will once again see early action in the Senate and pass quickly. We are also confident that work in the House will continue early in the 109th Congress."

P-I Washington correspondent Charles Pope can be reached at 202-263-6461 or



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