Revived Wild Sky bill gets a hearing - Environmentalists for, local communities against

By Katherine Pfleger
Seattle Times Washington bureau

6/8/03

WASHINGTON A proposal to create a wilderness area in Snohomish County is back.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate forests and public-lands subcommittee, said the Wild Sky Wilderness proposal is nearly ready to pass the Senate. But the question remains: Will it make it through the House this year?

The 106,000-acre swath of mountains and forest in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest would be Washington's first new wilderness area in almost 20 years. The area is home to lynx, grizzly bear and possibly the northern spotted owl. Wild Sky was first proposed three years ago.

Created under the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness designations are the most stringent protection for federal lands. They generally prohibit roads or permanent structures as well as mining, logging and most vehicular traffic.

Though Craig has concerns about the bill, such as how to handle maintenance on roads and culverts that are in the area, he said he could work with the bill's chief Senate sponsor, Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other advocates to address those issues.

But Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, testified at a Senate committee hearing yesterday that the administration has "significant concerns" about 16,000 acres of the proposal, many of which are low-elevation forests. He said they have been harvested and mined during the past 80 years and don't display truly pristine qualities.

Murray considers those acres the crux of the proposal.

Rey also would like Congress to clarify the Forest Service's authority to

Three of the five Snohomish County Council members Gary Nelson, John Koster and Jeff Sax told Craig in a letter this week that the proposal would hurt a local economy already in the doldrums by restricting logging and mining.

They also said the bill would make the area unreachable to the average Snohomish family and make fighting fires more difficult, if bridges and roads are closed.

repair roads and culverts in the area, which may need emergency repairs. To remove the roads and culverts, he said, would cost $6 million.

When pressed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., however, Rey said the president would sign the bill into law, in part because of the bipartisan support in the state's congressional delegation. "This is a good bill," he said.

All eight of the state's congressional Democrats support the bill, as does Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue.

Jessica Gleason, spokeswoman for Rep. "Doc" Hastings, R-Pasco, said he hasn't opposed action on the bill. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, has not taken a position on it, said his spokeswoman April Gentry.

Last year, the Senate passed the bill, but it never cleared the House. This session, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, introduced it again, but the Resources Committee has yet to schedule a hearing.

...many individuals in communities near the proposal, such as Index and Sultan, have been blindsided by the legislation, which they said has more support from Seattleites than rural residents.

"Support for Wild Sky has been greatly, if not deceptively, overstated," said Ed Husman, a Sky Valley resident and Snohomish County Farm Bureau board member.

A Republican congressional staff member said former Resources Chairman James Hansen, R-Utah, who has retired, blocked the bill last year over undisclosed concerns from at least one House member.

The proposal is essentially the same, so those concerns may remain.

Environmentalists at yesterday's hearing said the Wild Sky bill would protect 25 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning streams and 14,000 acres of rare, low-elevation, old-growth trees. They welcomed the proposed closure of about 13 miles of logging roads.

"It is getting harder and harder to find places for outdoor recreation. It seems everywhere is private, logged or crowded," Washington Wildlife Federation President Mark Heckert said in testimony.

But opponents said many individuals in communities near the proposal, such as Index and Sultan, have been blindsided by the legislation, which they said has more support from Seattleites than rural residents.

"Support for Wild Sky has been greatly, if not deceptively, overstated," said Ed Husman, a Sky Valley resident and Snohomish County Farm Bureau board member.

Three of the five Snohomish County Council members Gary Nelson, John Koster and Jeff Sax told Craig in a letter this week that the proposal would hurt a local economy already in the doldrums by restricting logging and mining.

They also said the bill would make the area unreachable to the average Snohomish family and make fighting fires more difficult, if bridges and roads are closed.

Mike Town, a Redmond High School science teacher who frequents the Wild Sky area, testified that he and other supporters consider it "a perfect candidate" for protection, which would boost tourism and recreation.

Katherine Pfleger: 206-464-2772 or kpfleger@seattletimes.com


 

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