Wild Sky hopes dashed in House - Time runs out for state wilderness measure



WASHINGTON -- Efforts to create Washington state's first wilderness area in 18 years collapsed an inch from the finish line yesterday.

The House moved to adjourn without considering the Wild Sky Wilderness Area, a proposal that won bipartisan approval in the Senate as well as broad local support.

An aide to Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., who co-sponsored the legislation, said House Republican leaders refused to bring the bill to the floor when the House meets briefly today for the last time this year.

While some supporters said they are hoping for a miracle, senior GOP aides said the session will be limited to passing the homeland security bill and that few members will even be in the chamber.

The failure of the 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness Area in Snohomish County was one of a pair of disappointments for Washington state lawmakers as Congress moved to close out the 107th Congress.

The House also declined to consider a compromise on extending unemployment benefits that Sen. Maria Cantwell and other Washington lawmakers said was critical to helping workers cope with the region's sagging economy.

Unless there is a last-minute compromise, the benefits will expire Dec. 28, cutting off help for about 830,000 unemployed workers nationally and about 50,000 in Washington.

But unlike the extension for unemployment insurance, which was stalled by ideological differences, Wild Sky died because of logistics. With time running out, House Republican leaders decided that only homeland security would be considered, freezing out even bills such as Wild Sky that would have earned lopsided victories.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the prime sponsors of the wilderness bill, said the outcome was disappointing but not fatal.

Both lawmakers have spent two years piecing together the complex and resilient agreement that had to satisfy such varied interests as the U.S. Forest Service, the Sierra Club and snowmobilers. They are convinced that the coalition behind the bill remains powerful enough to push it through Congress next year.

"I am deeply disappointed that the House leadership didn't take advantage of this opportunity for families who go camping and hiking in Washington state," Murray said.

"I can only hope that the Republican leadership in the next Congress will recognize the enormous bipartisan support for this common-sense proposal."

Murray and Larsen, along with other supporters, had been hoping the bill would squeeze through in the waning days after the Senate unexpectedly approved it on Wednesday.

Despite the setback, both lawmakers vowed to reintroduce the bill next year.

"I'm a freshman in the minority, so getting this close to getting a substantial piece of environmental legislation through is pretty significant," Larsen said.

Local advocates took much the same view, agreeing that prospects for passage next year are bright.

"The same momentum that got it this far will be there right out of the gate next year," said Jon Owen, campaign director for the Washington Wilderness Coalition, a group pushing to preserve and protect public lands.

Bill Arthur, Northwest director for the Sierra Club, said he is "reasonably optimistic" that Congress will pass it next year. The bill, Arthur said, "was built from the ground up," which gave it the broad community support that Congress rarely ignores.

Unlike other wilderness areas that are threatened by development or from logging or mining, advocates believe the land encompassed by Wild Sky is safe in the near future.

"The Bush administration is trying to get King Timber back on the throne, so the longer anything waits the greater the risk," Arthur said. " But I don't think Wild Sky is vulnerable."

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 2-mile-long former logging road to be converted to a wheelchair-accessible trail.

The construction of roads would be forbidden, 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 Skykomish River valley can experience unspoiled vistas.

And 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 forests and salmon-bearing streams.

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. Some of the acreage included in the original proposal was stripped out in a concession to snowmobilers.

The proposed wilderness includes 80,000 acres of old-growth and mature forest, with another 14,000 acres of rare, low-elevation old-growth trees.

The wilderness designation would close about 30 miles of old logging roads and permanently ban logging, road building and motorized access for most vehicles. It would allow continued recreational use by hikers, cross-country skiers and others.


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