Logging group eyes Wild Sky - Timber interests hope to alter boundaries

By Jim Haley
The Daily Herald Writer


INDEX, WA-- The failure of Congress to act on a bill to create a new wilderness area in eastern Snohomish County has opened the door to changing the boundaries and making some of the proposed site available for logging.

Timber interests say they will try to do that in 2003, but environmentalists and legislators are bent on keeping the proposed wilderness north of Index and Skykomish the way it is.

The 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness didn't materialize because House of Representatives leaders didn't bring the measure to a vote in the final hours of the 107th Congress.

Lawmakers pledged to try again next year.

The lobbying organization American Forest Research Council will push for changes in new bills, which are expected to be introduced early in the year.

The Oregon-based group said in its newsletter this week that it would work with sponsors and the administration to make boundary changes, including reserving some of the timber for possible cutting.

Some 10,000 to 13,000 acres of land included in the Wild Sky proposal were eyed in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan as areas that might be harvested, the U.S. Forest Service said.

"Right now, that 10,000 or 13,000 acres are already available under the Clinton administration for timber harvesting," said Chris West, vice president of timber products group. Environmentalists, he said, "want to preclude it."

The acreage cited by West includes scattered pockets of timberland that potentially could be harvested under the 1994 forest plan negotiated under then-President Clinton. The plan was supposed to be a compromise safeguarding endangered species and allowing sustained cutting in Washington and Oregon national forests.

The Wild Sky Wilderness plan was developed over two years after discussions with a variety of user groups and a lot of compromise. Washington Democrats Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen led the charge.

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in the final week, but languished in the House. Senate leadership will change next year, giving Murray less clout. What's more, the Bush administration this week proposed easing regulations for cutting in the nation's national forests.

For the moment, none of the area in the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness is scheduled for logging, said Ron DeHart, spokesman for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. He doesn't see that changing.

"The area has not been under the onslaught for harvest," he said. "We will continue under the guidelines of the Northwest Forest Plan and the 1990 (U.S. Forest Service) plan until changes are directed."

Much of the area eyed for the wilderness already is being managed as primitive, DeHart added.

The timber industry wants to reopen negotiations on the Wild Sky boundaries, but that won't happen easily.

"The Wild Sky bill was the result of more than two years of discussion and negotiations with the community, snowmobilers, environmentalists and others," said Todd Webster, a spokesman for Murray. "The bill is already a product of a great deal of negotiation and compromise."

Webster said the proposal earned praise from all quarters as the right way to compose a wilderness bill.

"Senator Murray will reintroduce the bill in January, and we will go from there," he said.

Larsen also said he will introduce a new Wild Sky bill in the House early next year.

The proposal originally was to permanently protect 120,000 acres, but some land was cut out to make room for snowmobiling, which would be excluded in a wilderness area. The bill also had some exceptions, such as a paved wheelchair path and permission for floatplanes to continue landing in Lake Isabel, a large lake within the area.

The area included 14,000 acres of rare, low-elevation old-growth timber, including salmon-spawning areas in the Skykomish River watershed. Some 30 miles of old, failing logging roads were to be closed.

John Leary of the environmental group Wild Washington Campaign said the American Forest Resource Council didn't raise objections until the bill went before the Senate in the summer. It claimed, for one thing, that roads, bridges and the fact some of the area had been logged 100 years ago fly in the face of legislation forming wilderness areas.

"Not a single acre in the Wild Sky Wilderness proposal goes against the spirit of the Wilderness Act. We're seeing the purity argument" often brought out by certain elements of the Forest Service and timber lobbyists, Leary said.

"They always try it," he added. "Congress always rejects it."

Another environmentalist, Jill Smith of the Washington Wilderness Coalition, said the boundaries should stay in any new proposal.

"It's been compromised many times to get to the point where it is now," she said. "I think it's an excellent proposal with the boundaries the way they are."


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