Plan unveiled to create new wilderness area

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter

EVERETT , WA - 5/30/02 Two Washington lawmakers want to create the state's first new wilderness area in 18 years, setting aside thousands of acres of low-elevation old-growth forest and miles of salmon-spawning streams in an area twice the size of Seattle.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen want to designate 106,000 acres north of Highway 2 along the North Skykomish River system as "wilderness," the most-protective federal public-lands classification. The last such creation in the state was in 1984, when 1 million acres was classified as wilderness, including the adjacent Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Area.

The area Murray, D-Wash., and Larsen, D-Everett, are calling "Wild Sky" is home to 80,000 acres of mature and second-growth Douglas fir and Alaska cedar forests, with some trees towering 250 feet. The land is braided by streams and punctuated by rocky peaks and granite cliffs and provides habitat for spotted owls, marbled murrelets, bald eagles, cougars and lynxes.

"If those animals are to be here for centuries into the future, we have to protect that habitat now," Murray said.

If successful, the proposal would reclassify land within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, close 30 miles of old logging roads and permanently ban logging, road-building and motorized access for most vehicles except wheelchairs. But it would continue to allow for recreational use by hikers, cross-country skiers, climbers, hunters and anglers and kayakers. The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as "land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation."

Murray and Larsen disclosed their proposal yesterday before an audience of about 60, but its future rests in large part on someone who wasn't in attendance: U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue.

Only Congress can designate wilderness, and with the House and White House controlled by the GOP, making such a large swath of forest off-limits to logging isn't likely to happen without support of the state's highest-ranking Republican.

"The delegation is probably the key most-important element," said Michael Francis, with the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. "If you've got a badly split delegation on the issue, it's probably not going to move. That's the congressional litmus test."

So far, Dunn is noncommittal. "She hasn't seen the map," said Dunn spokeswoman Jen Burita. "She plans to look over it after the recess and see what areas are affected."

Environmentalists have gone door to door in her district, encouraging voters to write letters to Dunn supporting the proposal. Environmental issues are of growing importance to suburban voters, especially in Dunn's district, which voted for Dunn and Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election.

"If it makes sense, and the impacts are light, then I think most folks in her district would be supportive," said Brett Bader, a conservative political consultant. "And frankly, let's face it: Jennifer's taken other environmental positions that appeared to be at odds with the GOP."

Dunn supported efforts to strip Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling plans from President Bush's energy bill last summer. But Bader also pointed out that Republicans, including former U.S. Sens. Dan Evans and Slade Gorton, were instrumental in previous wilderness designations.

"Generally speaking, suburban voters care about quality of life," said Chris Vance, the state Republican chairman.

"They want to know they live in a clean environment, and they want to know it's being protected. The whole debate is about 'How much is enough?' "

To date, Washington has 4.3 million acres protected in 30 wilderness areas, including those within Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks that were designated in 1988.

Bader and Vance said the key question would be whether the proposal unduly hurts people or businesses. Bader also pointed out that this proposal is surfacing in an election year and Larsen, a freshman congressman, has his first re-election campaign this fall.

The proposal has drawn virtually no opposition and is backed by those who would live closest. Kem Hunter, mayor of Index, enthusiastically supports it, arguing that it can only help the outdoor-recreation business in his town.

Snowmobilers who use that area sat down with congressional aides and helped redraw boundaries so they excluded popular snowmobiling spots such as nearby Windy Ridge, which can draw 50 snowmobilers on a busy weekend. In exchange, snowmobilers committed to not opposing the bill even though one prize spot along Eagle Rock would be off-limits.

"We said if they met our requirements, we'd stay neutral," said Chris Fadden, with the Washington State Snowmobile Association.

Larsen and Murray also said they've worked with the Boy Scouts and other groups to exclude a recreational area around Barkley Lake that draws 10,000 or so visitors a year. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits groups of more than 12 using wilderness areas.

The proposal also highlights a trend among those trying to designate new wilderness areas. Advocates increasingly work early and behind the scenes with communities to secure support from would-be opponents and often are choosing smaller targets than the big omnibus set-asides of the 1970s and '80s.

In the last session of Congress, lawmakers created new wilderness areas in Nevada, Alabama and Southern California and added 4,419 acres to Colorado's Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area the latter at the urging of Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., perhaps environmentalists' chief opponent in the House.

"They were very focused, very localized proposals," said Michael Carroll, with the Wilderness Support Center in Colorado. "The bills that end up at loggerheads typically are ones where there's been more the line in the sand drawn between the conservation community and pro-industry members of Congress bills that tend to be more a symbol to both sides."

(Note:  See The Wildlands Project)

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