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Wild Sky headed for fast approval - Key opponent's ouster clears way for new wilderness area

By Jim Haley and Lukas Velush
The Daily Herald Writers

November 13, 2006

The Wild Sky Wilderness bill - a proposal to set aside 106,000 acres of forest north of Index and Skykomish - long lingered on life support.

It's been resuscitated with the Democratic takeover of Congress.

Washington lawmakers are gearing up in January to renew an effort to preserve the land.

"The Wild Sky Wilderness is my top environmental priority going into the next session of Congress," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. "The importance of Wild Sky is it will give people for generations a clean place to hunt and fish."

Measures to create the wilderness were approved three times in the U.S. Senate but languished in the House.

The chief opponent, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., failed to win re-election after environmental groups spent $1 million to oust him.

As chairman of a key House committee, Pombo refused to let proposals to create the wilderness area get to the floor for a vote.

Opponents of creating the first new wilderness in Washington since 1984 were disheartened by the Democratic leadership takeover.

"I figured on Tuesday we'd be hearing a lot about Wild Sky," said David Hurwitz, chairman of the Snowmobile Alliance of Western States. "I say now it's a done deal. We've stopped it for this long and now it will go straight through. The gatekeeper (Pombo) is gone."

A wilderness designation is the federal government's most restrictive land use regulation.

Motorized vehicles and bicycles are prohibited, and the designation also prevents logging, mining and the building of any new roads. Hiking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, canoeing and similar activities are allowed.

Not only does locking up land as a wilderness prohibit snowmobiling and other mechanized transportation, but Hurwitz maintains it also leaves trees prone to disease, fire and other problems due to poor management.

Sultan City Councilman Jim Flower has this bit of advice: "If you love that area, go visit it now, because the day will come when you won't be able to visit."

Flower was on the council last year when members voted unanimously to oppose creating the wilderness.

"It's really a crime to take such a beautiful place and lock it away from the people who can enjoy it, all so Rick Larsen can have a legacy," Flower said. "The only one who was really making sense in Congress was Richard Pombo."

Mike Leibold, co-owner of Everett Powersports, also sees the handwriting on the wall.

"Wild Sky is an example of how you can be a busybody and how you can look good to your constituents and how you can receive special-interest money, and all the while not paying any attention to fixing Social Security and the war on terror," he said.

He said the land is already protected as it is and should be left alone.

Larsen, of Everett, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., originally proposed the legislation in 2002 after working with communities and user groups to carve out a compromise. Twice more they introduced similar legislation that would permanently protect the 106,000 acres.

With Democratic leadership on the House committee, the "chances are excellent" of quick passage, said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. He said he's eager to help get the measure through the House.

There's little chance an effort will be made to pass the measure before Congress adjourns in December, Larsen and Murray said. The proposal will be renewed early next year.

At times during the long political struggle, compromises were struck to reduce the area's size in an attempt to get the heart of the measure passed.

Lawmakers said the new plan probably won't be too much different than the original 106,000-acre proposal.

"Pombo is gone and the Democrats are in the majority, so we have all the cards in line," Murray said. "And this is a top priority of mine."

The proposed Wild Sky Wilderness is nestled around the Beckler and North Fork Skykomish rivers. The proposal would protect 25 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat and about 80,000 acres of old-growth trees - including 14,000 acres of rare low-elevation old growth, proponents said.

Creating Wild Sky is the right thing to do, said Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers, an environmentalist who has long supported the measure.

"It's very wild, severe country. To try to develop and put more roads in just makes no sense," Somers said. "These kind of areas just really need to be preserved."

Wild Sky timeline

The debate over the Wild Sky Wilderness proposal may be over. Here's a timeline of events relating to the proposal:

July 2, 2001: Lawmakers tour sections of the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness, led by environmentalists.

May 29, 2002: After months of study, public comment and compromise, Sen. Patty Murray and 2nd Dist. Congressman Rick Larsen, both D-Wash., introduce bills to create the first new wilderness area in Washington in nearly two decades.

Nov. 22, 2002: The House adjourns before approving the bill. The Senate had passed the measure just days before.

Nov. 24, 2003: The Senate approves a second version of the Wild Sky legislation, but progress stalls in a key House committee led by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

July 8, 2004: Murray and Larsen's staffs reach a bipartisan compromise with the 5th District's Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., who was running for Murray's Senate seat. Nethercutt backed out, and no action was taken on the compromise.

July 22, 2004: Pombo holds a hearing in Washington, D.C., where friends and foes of Wild Sky testify.

Jan. 25, 2005: Murray restarts the quest for Wild Sky, introducing a third bill in the Senate.

Aug. 18, 2005: Pombo comes to Washington state and flies over the proposed wilderness area. He continues to keep the Wild Sky bill from going to the House floor.

Nov. 7, 2006: Environmental groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat Pombo in the election, and the Democrats take control of Congress, opening the door to passage of the legislation.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haley@heraldnet.com.



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