Murray, Dicks propose adding 126,554 acres of wilderness to Olympic National Forest

With the introduction of a bill that would expand protected wilderness areas on the Olympic Peninsula, two of Washington's congressional leaders have embraced a notion that appears to be rather outdated these days — compromise. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks, both Democrats, proposed the Wild Olympics Wilderness & Wild and Scenic River Act of 2012 last week, designed to add 126,554 acres of wilderness on Olympic National Forest lands. The proposal would protect 107,982 acres of mature trees at least 80 years old and would create 19 new Wild and Scenic Rivers within the forest.

Wild & Scenic designation would prohibit federal dams in the area while also creating a planning process for managing land. Private lands would not be impacted without support of the owners.

Reaction to the proposal has been far from unanimous. Many residents near the impacted area have expressed concerns about the plan, ranging from economic worries to threats of limited access. Grays Harbor County, it should be noted, has an unemployment rate of 13.7 percent that is the highest in the state.

While weighing the benefits of protecting the environment – an issue in which the Northwest has long been on the cutting edge – it always is crucial to consider the human impact of any decisions. Environmental limitations can have very real economic consequences, as demonstrated over the past several decades by efforts to protect the northern spotted owl and efforts to protect salmon runs in the region.

In that regard, the proposal presented by Sen. Murray and Rep. Dicks qualifies as a compromise.

An initial idea presented three years ago and supported by environmental groups would have added nearly 1 million acres of protected land. After years of negotiations and public input, the proposal has been scaled back to its current size. The revamped bill dropped 37,000 acres of proposed additions to the national park and removed from the plan 11,300 acres of harvestable timber lands.

Not that all interested parties are convinced that the new proposal is a good idea.

"I don't think it is playing much differently," Tim Gibbs, CEO of Greater Grays Harbor, told The Seattle Times. "It is a very divided community and a very divisive issue."

It is easy to empathize with those who would be directly affected by the bill. At the same time, it is crucial for all Washingtonians to have a say in preserving the state's beauty for coming generations. Sometime in the future, be it 10 or 50 or 150 years from now, our descendants might be able to enjoy pristine areas of the Olympic Peninsula just as current citizens are able to do — but only if we work to preserve those areas.

"The amazing natural treasures in the Olympic Peninsula are among the crown jewels of our state, and the Wild Olympics proposal will build on the strong foundation of conservation that has been laid down over generations," Murray said last week.
Protecting Washington's natural treasures is a worthy goal and has been a hallmark of our state. For an example that resides a little closer to home, consider the importance of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area in preserving the beauty of our area.

In moving to further protect the Olympic Peninsula and attempting to strike some sort of balance between economic and environmental concerns, Sen. Murray and Rep. Dicks have managed to find some middle ground between the two sides of the discussion.