The Dark Divide Decision: Environmentalists differ about pushing for wilderness

Monday, September 22, 2003

By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

DARK DIVIDE -- No one can say for sure whether Bigfoot walks amid the deep forested valleys and rocky outcrops in the heart of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

But controversy is easy to find.

The Dark Divide Roadless Area, an amoeba-shaped parcel of about 55,000 acres between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, has long been a point of contention between two sets of recreational groups: those who want to ride through it on motorcycles and others who want to hike in quiet solitude.

Wilderness designation would resolve the matter permanently by banning the use of motorized vehicles.

With Congress mulling a bill to carve 106,000 acres of wilderness out of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest east of Seattle -- the state's first wilderness designation in almost 20 years -- some environmental activists are turning their attention to the biggest single roadless area in Southwest Washington.

"Absolutely, the Sierra Club wants to get wilderness designation for the Dark Divide," said Nick Forrest, president of the club's chapter in Vancouver.

U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, has hiked the Dark Divide, but he has not said whether he would sponsor or support wilderness legislation for the area 35 miles north of the Columbia River. Because the area falls within his congressional district, Baird's support is considered crucial.

"It's a magnificent area," he said. "It is certainly an area that I think is worth protecting."

Although the Sierra Club earlier this year distributed 500 lawn signs in Vancouver imploring the Forest Service to "Keep the Dark Divide Wild," other environmental groups are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"It makes sense to me to wait and see what happens to Wild Sky," said Susan Jane Brown, the former executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, referring to the Skykomish River wilderness bill now before Congress.

Susan Saul, a longtime hiking activist from Vancouver, lobbied to include the Dark Divide as part of a package of wilderness areas created in 1984. At the time, she said, Washington's congressional delegation was more united and the House and Senate generally more receptive to wilderness initiatives.

"It's a much tougher political landscape to work in right now than it was 20 years ago," Saul said. "The last thing I'd want to do is introduce a piece of legislation that doesn't go anywhere."

Baird, a co-sponsor of the Wild Sky wilderness proposal, did not rule out sponsoring a future wilderness bill for the Dark Divide but said he would defer to Saul and other environmental activists who say the issue isn't ripe. The Wild Sky legislation is the first priority for most environmental groups.

"Until that is resolved, I think they're going to wait a while on the Dark Divide," Baird said. "It's a project I'd be happy to be involved in."

Because the area includes pockets of big lucrative trees, the timber industry successfully staved off efforts to preserve the Dark Divide as wilderness two decades ago. These days, with federal timber harvesting at a fraction of the level of the 1980s, conservation groups have turned their attention to the effects of motorcycles.

They point to a series of deeply rutted motorcycle trails crisscrossing the Dark Divide, and they argue it's not merely a fight between recreation groups. Besides causing sediment to slough into creeks, they say the loud whine of motors scatters mountain goats and disrupts a calving area for elk. A federal court ruling in 1996, in fact, blocked the Forest Service from reconstructing a motorized trail on the rugged and steep Langille and Juniper ridges. U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled the agency failed to consider the overall environmental effects of the project.

"Certainly, the Forest Service needs to look at the effects of motorized use on wildlife, and they've never done an analysis," Saul said.

Forest Service managers pulled together an advisory group representing various recreation groups in the late 1980s, in hopes of finding a compromise over the area. Hikers, horsemen and motorcyclists found consensus on divvying up trails in other areas of the forest, but they found no compromise on the Dark Divide.

"It's created a stalemate in terms of management because there's no give on either side," said Dave Porter, recreation program manager for the Gifford Pinchot.

Recreationists of all stripes agree on at least one point: It's a place worth fighting for.

"Most of the times you're just up there by yourself or with a friend," said Rick Dahl, a Longview motorcyclist who uses the area two or three times each summer. "It's just a beautiful country."


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