Plan for 'Wild Sky' wilderness area advances - Federal tract would include Skykomish valley area

WASHINGTON -- The first federal wilderness area to be created in Washington state since 1984 edged closer to reality yesterday after a key senator expressed support for the complex "Wild Sky" proposal that would permanently protect 106,000 acres in the Skykomish River valley northeast of Seattle.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate's Public Lands and Forestry Subcommittee, said at a hearing called to examine the deal that he would move "quickly" to bring the bill to the full Senate for a vote soon after lawmakers return in September. The initiative, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has broad support and is expected to pass. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and most of the Washington delegation also support the bill.

Under the bill, the acreage in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest would receive the highest level of protection afforded federal property. It would be off limits to vehicles, including bicycles and snowmobiles, as well as to logging, mining and other commercial uses. Wheelchairs, however, would be permitted, and the proposal calls for a two-mile-long former logging road to be converted to a wheelchair-accessible trail.


The construction of roads would be prohibited although exceptions would be allowed in emergencies such as fires. The goal is to preserve the land in its original form so that the 2.4 million people who live within two hours of the valley can experience views and vistas that greeted the first settlers.

"The proposal before you today is the result of more than two years of discussion and negotiation with the local community, Longview Fibre, the Washington State Snowmobile Association, the Wild Washington Campaign and the Chelan County Public Utility District," Murray told the subcommittee.

"The Wild Sky Wilderness Proposal reflects the values of Washington state, and respects the economic and recreational interests of the people of Snohomish County. ... The Wild Sky Wilderness will protect a unique landscape and make it accessible to families in the Puget Sound," she said.

Kem Hunter, mayor of Index in the heart of the proposed wilderness, said the designation "would be the best thing that ever happened in this valley.

"The main reason many of us moved here was to be close to the awesome beauty of this pristine valley in the mountains," said Hunter, a retired Seattle firefighter who came to the valley to escape the stress of the job. "But even though most of the land around us is national forest, little of it has any formal legislative protection. Most of us would like the land to stay wild rather than see more roads built or forests cut down."

Hunter recalled daydreaming while serving in Vietnam of a "quiet place back home surrounded by alpine forest, sparkling water and clean, crisp air."

"I found such a place when I moved to Index in 1976," he said.

Hunter added that creating a wilderness area could revive the local economy. "What our town really needs is jobs that stay with us, and jobs that stay with us are those that are tied to the growing outdoor recreational market. Index is within a two-hour drive of almost 2 million people; our town is a perfect starting point for visitors who would come to enjoy this wilderness area."

In a break with tradition in which only highest-elevation land is protected -- so-called rocks and ice -- 30 percent of the land protected by Wild Sky would be considered lowland, including lowland forests and salmon-bearing streams.

"That will bring new ecological systems into our state's wilderness lands and better reflect the broad palette of nature's landscapes," Murray said.

Getting to this point, however, wasn't easy. The final boundaries were cobbled out of two years of intense negotiations with such diverse interests as politicians, environmentalists and snowmobilers who often clashed in the past.

This time, all sides compromised.

"There has been a lot of cooperation and a true good-faith effort to bring together various stakeholders to try and resolve any controversial issues," said James Young, Northwest representative for the Sierra Club who helped negotiate the deal.

"We in the environmental community didn't get everything we wanted. We originally supported a larger proposal, around 120,000 acres. Some areas were dropped out in recognition of (requests by interests for snowmobile riders). There were accommodations made on all sides."

Even Western Republicans, who often strenuously fight efforts to close off federal land to all development, offered support for the "Wild Sky" proposal.

"You did it the way it ought to be done. It was an inclusive process," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Despite the encouraging signs, the path isn't entirely clear.

Abigail Kimbell, an official with the Forest Service, told the subcommittee that the agency had "concerns" about 20,000 acres that might not qualify for wilderness protection. She said, is that there is evidence that decades ago, there were some logging, mining and roads there.

Kimbell said the Forest Service isn't officially opposing the designation but needs some clarification. Senate aides said most of the questions have already been answered in discussions with Forest Service authorities in Washington state. Moreover, they said, the definition of what can be considered a wilderness is "elastic."

Under most interpretations, they said, an area that has been left largely untouched for 80 years after it was logged for a railroad could easily be considered a wilderness.

Supporters say prospects in the House are uncertain, although they are hopeful that an identical bill introduced by two Washington representatives, Democrat Rick Larsen and Republican Jennifer Dunn, will catapult the measure over any objections.

Larsen and Dunn sent a letter yesterday to the chairman of the House Resources Committee asking for a hearing on their bill. Aides said they are optimistic the committee will act, because it traditionally passes bills of local interest if the state delegation supports it.

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