Congressman Norm Dicks and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray took their push for the Wild Olympics Campaign on the road Thursday with stops in the Shelton area to showcase the need for better water quality at a shellfish farm and later on a bridge rising over a river in the Olympic National Forest, which would see increased protection.
In June, Dicks and Murray introduced the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2012, roughly three years after conservation and recreation groups started the conversation to expand protection of areas around Olympic National Park.
The legislation expands the wilderness area around the park and also creates a Wild and Scenic designation along rivers coming out of the park. It's considered a swan song for Congressman Dicks, who is retiring at the end of the year.
Among the two candidates looking to replace Dicks, Republican Bill Driscoll adamantly opposes the Wild Olympics plan, while Democrat Derek Kilmer has taken a more cautious view of the current legislation, not clearly indicating his support or opposition.
Murray pledged to Dicks that she would continue pushing forward with the legislation, long after he retires.
Looking at the rest of the year, Murray said it appeared unlikely that the bill would make it through either the House or Senate this year.
"One way to do it would be to put the legislation on an appropriations bill," Murray said in an interview. "But we just got an agreement to do a continuing resolution so it's going to be pretty hard to do."
Murray noted she worked on the Wild Sky Wilderness for 10 to 11 years before it was approved in 2008. That legislation designated more than 100,0000 acres of new wilderness in Snohomish and King counties.
"I know with things like this you have to keep working it, keep convincing people back in Washington, D.C., that this is the right thing to do and I'm committed to do that process," Murray said.
Dicks offered up one regret during his public address Thursday, noting that in his decades in Congress, he should have done more to have the U.S. Forest Service enforce the federal Northwest Forest Plan and its harvest and thinning goals that have never been met.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we can do more commercial thinning and raise those numbers somewhat," Dicks said. "It's not in this legislation but it's another issue that should be addressed. And I wish I had taken more time to try to figure out a way to get those numbers up a bit, but I think it will happen. And I think that will placate a lot of the concerns from the other side."
The stop at Taylor Shellfish was geared as a reminder as to why preserving water quality is so important for the proponents of the plan.
"We have challenges for water quality and we have been working on Hood Canal and Puget Sound for years," Dicks told a small group of proponents gathered on the banks of Skookum Bay. "You've got to protect these rivers and this legislation would protect 19 rivers and seven tributaries. This is a jobs issue. Protecting shellfish is a jobs issue in Washington state."
"This helps ensure the water quality in the Olympic Region and that is really critical for us," agreed Bill Taylor, the CEO of Taylor Shellfish, which exports thousands of clams, geoducks and oysters and generates hundreds of jobs on Hood Canal.
Taylor noted that not just the shellfish industry depends on clean water, but wildlife does, too. As if timed just right, several herons flew by and landed in the water as a group of workers harvest clams nearby.
Murray called it a "perfect backdrop for why this legislation is important."
The last stop on the tour was the High Steel Bridge, located within the National Forest. The 685-foot bridge rises 420 feet into the air above the South Fork of the Skokomish River.
Wild Olympics Campaign Chairwoman Connie Gallant said it was important to show off one of the rivers that would receive protections from the Wild and Scenic designation.
Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty said that Dicks was adding to his "legacy to protect our rivers."
The legislation contains 126,554 acres of land that would be designated as wilderness, which Dicks pointed out is essential to creating adequate watershed areas for rivers that Taylor Shellfish need to survive. An additional 5,346 acres of wilderness could be designated by future administrations. Logging is not allowed in official wilderness areas.
Gone from the plan is an option that have allowed the park to expand by letting private landowners sell their land to the National Park if they were in a designated area. That's a compromise toward concerns raises by area tribes and the forest industry. The plan now would only affect state or federal land, not private property owners.
Murray said she believes the U.S. Forest Service is properly funded to handle the increased wilderness designation, noting that the Big Sky Wilderness addition didn't require additional funding.
"When we did Big Sky, it wasn't an issue," Murray said in an interview. "This isn't an additional cost factor at all. I completely understand the concern of decreasing federal budgets and those who want to cut absolutely everything, making it impossible to do anything in the future. But within the forest service budget, this is absolutely manageable."
A consistent complaint among opponents is that the Wild Olympics plan has been crafted to combat a threat that simply doesn't exist.
Asked if there was a mine or dam or a clear cut proposed at the headwaters of one of the rivers geared for protection, Murray replied, "The risk of not doing this leaves everything up in the air to whether it will be logged. Then, when we want to preserve something, it will be too late."
In the plan, 768 acres of what is considered timber that could be logged by conventional methods, as well as 830 acres of timberland that could only be logged by using a helicopter, would be designated as wilderness.There are also 2,978 acres of scattered timberland, but in areas even more remote than those designated for helicopter logging. Those numbers are far less than previous options that had been on the table.
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, still opposes the plan, noting that the proposal isn't just old growth, but contains second growth timber, too. Neither he nor any other opponent attended the private events hosted by Dicks and Murray. Blake also points out that Dicks and Murray should be using their resources to spur more logging operations on National Forest land.
"The opposition is growing stronger in my opinion," Blake said in a phone interview. "The unemployed are still unemployed and still looking for help. … We've got forests that are unhealthy and we've got hundreds of thousands of acres of previously managed land that has not been properly managed because of Congress' interference and you're seeing the consequences of that burning in Eastern Washington today, and God help us if we get these fires started in Western Washington."
Murray said she thinks more support for the plan will come.
"I think as people start to recognize the real advantage here for communities to have this designation and the opportunities, I think we'll get more and more support," Murray said. "I think the real opposition, the reality opposition, has decreased."
State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, pledged his support for the Wild Olympics legislation at Thursday's event. He said he felt the compromise legislation satisfies concerns by the timber industry.
"There's nothing in the plan that will impact the mills across my district and that's really important," Tharinger said.
Tharinger also told Murray that if the Forest Service was allocated more revenue, then thinning operations would increase and, inevitably, more loggers would be put to work.
"I've heard that, too," Murray told Tharinger.
Tharinger said he hopes Murray, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is in a position to help.
The Wild Olympics legislation is HR 5995, sponsored by Dicks and Congressman Jim McDermott of Seattle; and SB 3329, sponsored by Murray. The legislation has been referred to natural resource committees.