WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks introduced the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2012 today, roughly three years after conservation and recreation groups started the conversation to expand protection of areas around Olympic National Park.
The plan has been scaled back from that first proposal, which sought a "wilderness" designation on upwards of half a million acres of land. The conservation groups trimmed the plan on their own after conversations with area tribes, timber companies and opponents of the expanded protections. Once the idea was turned over to Dicks and Murray, the plan was reduced even further. The legislation now contains 126,554 acres of land that would be designated as wilderness. An additional 5,346 acres of wilderness could be designated by future administrations. Logging is not allowed in official wilderness areas.
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.
The plan contains "wild and scenic" designations on 19 rivers and seven tributaries inside the park or outside of the park, mainly on state or federal lands.
Also gone is a plan that would have allowed the park to expand by letting private landowners sell their land to the National Park if they were in a designated area.
The plan now would only affect state or federal land, not private property owners.
"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," said Sen. Patty Murray in a press release. "I was proud to work closely with Representative Dicks and the local community for over two years to arrive at the compromise proposal we are introducing today. Passing the Wild Olympics bill will be a huge victory for the Olympic Peninsula and Washington state, and I am going to fight hard to get that done."
"This legislation will protect sources of clean drinking water, preserve critical salmon and steelhead habitat, and protect the area economy," said Congressman Norm Dicks. "The feedback we have received from everyday citizens has played a vital role in the development of this legislation. The result has been a consensus proposal that will help protect these sensitive areas on the Olympic Peninsula and continue our progress to protect and restore Puget Sound and Hood Canal for future generations."
Murray's Office pitched the proposal as necessary to protect "sources of clean drinking water for local communities," "critical salmon and steelhead habitat," key recreational opportunities as well as rivers and streams "vital to the health and restoration of Puget Sound."
The legislation would create new responsibilities for the U.S. Forest Service to figure out how to manage the lands, as well as set up a management plan for the wild and scenic designations. However, the legislation will not contain any new funding. The Forest Service will have to use its regular budget to do the job.
Opponents of the plan were concerned that roads they use to reach wilderness areas for recreation would be allowed to return to a natural state. Instead, the plan "cherry stems" along the roads, creating 200-foot setbacks on each side to allow proper room to do repairs and remove trees that could fall.
A wilderness designation means that mountains bikes and offroad vehicles cannot be used in the area, although the legislation contains no funding to enforce those new rules. And many of the popular biking areas were left out of the wilderness designations after working with interest groups.
The proposal has been a very divisive issue in Olympic Peninsula communities, drawing hundreds of people to forums conducted all over the peninsula. Supporters and opponents have both paid for banners and buttons as if the issue were a political campaign with signs dotted around the community.
The Wild Olympics supporters are backed by state and federal environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, American Rivers and the Pew Environmental Group along with a few with roots on the Olympic Peninsula, such as the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and the Olympic Forest Coalition. They've paid for consultants, such as former county commissioner Al Carter to work on the ground to develop support for their cause. They've had paid advertisements in The Daily World and other regional media. They've spent thousands of dollars on studies that reached the conclusion that there are economic benefits from the proposal.
Just this past week, the group paid for a poll of 500 "likely voters" across the 6th Congressional District that found 64 percent of those polled favored the Wild Olympics plan, 20 percent were undecided and 15 percent opposed the idea.
Just how much money they've invested in their campaign isn't clear.
Opponents have relied on a website and Facebook to get their message across. Some printed signs call the concept a "$900 million land grab," a dollar value that simply cannot be backed up by the organized opposition.
They've taken the issue to City Council meetings and county commission meetings to gather opposition letters. Thus far, the cities of Cosmopolis, Aberdeen, Forks, the Grays Harbor County commissioners and the Port of Port Angeles have been among the governments formally opposing the Wild Olympics plan, although the majority of those resolutions were done before major changes had been done.
Supporters have received the support of the Kitsap County commissioners and the Jefferson County commissioners, among others.
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, says he's still opposing the congressional legislation, noting that wilderness areas should be reserved for old growth, while the proposed plan features some "plantation-style second growth" that should be left in rotation for logging.
Of the 126,554 acres of proposed wilderness areas, the plan includes 93,959 acres of old growth timber, considered 160 years or older.
Blake says he's also disappointed that neither Dicks nor Murray are working harder or have included proposals in the legislation to reform the way the Northwest Forest Plan is interpreted to increase sustainable harvest levels.
"I'm disappointed that they aren't seeking balance in this bill," Blake said. "We'll have to see how far down the road the proposal gets."
Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Sen. Murray, said, "Senator Murray would certainly be willing to look at plans to increase harvest in a sustainable way within the parameters of the Northwest Forest Plan, but she doesn't believe we have to wait for that to move forward with a community-driven Wild Olympics proposal."
Green Crow industries, a timber company based at Port Angeles, had timberland that would have been affected by a draft version of the plan introduced last year. But their land – plus all private land – has been removed from consideration.
Green Crow President Randy Johnson says he's grateful that action was taken, although he's still not quite ready to sign up as a big proponent of the plan.
"I appreciate that that they took out the private land, but I'm still going to need to read the bill before I make my decision," Johnson said.
Johnson says they have a sawmill that employs 40 to 50 people in Port Angeles that depends on state and forest land.
"Fiber supply means jobs," Johnson said. "I would rather they do their best to increase fiber supply. That said, I'm still in the process of evaluating everything but appreciate what they've done."
Bob Buchan, a spokesman with Cosmo Specialty Fibers in Cosmopolis, gives credit to the Wild Olympics community to be able to take criticism.
"Too often in the past, environmental actions have simply ignored community concerns," Buchan said.
Buchan said that Cosmo still remains concerned about the fiber supply in the National Forest and thinks more should be done by the federal delegation to address that issue.
"While we are not supportive of the continuing trend in this state to reduce fiber supply, we also believe that with the (Wild Olympics) proposal reduced to essentially federal land, our own fiber interests are not directly affected by this proposal," Buchan said. "We trust that these promises will be upheld in any legislation going forward. We believe that a valuable consequence of the Wild Olympics proposal is the recognition that fiber supply remains the lifeblood of Western Washington. The economic and social security of the communities in our area have been devastated by decisions affecting fiber. Phase Two of the Wild Olympics exercise needs to take human interests into consideration in order to restore a renewable resource to the communities who desperately need it."