Law would increase national forest and protect other areas

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks recently introducedthe Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2012 into the U.S. Senate and House. The act is set to expand the Olympic National Forest and designate additional protected wilderness areas.

Introduced on June 21, the proposal would add more than 120,000 acres to the Olympic National Forest and designate 19 rivers and seven tributaries as "Wild and Scenic Rivers." It would also protect certain watersheds across the peninsula.

Sections of the Elwha, Big Quilcene, Dosewallips and Duckabush rivers are proposed for protection.

A number of organizations have been working for or against the proposal for the last couple of years. The Quilcene-based Wild Olympics Coalition has supported the act since its inception, while the North Olympic Timber Action Committee, out of Port Angeles, has tried to reduce the number of workable timber acres the act would affect.

The bill is being considered by a committee before being sent to the House or the Senate as a whole. A specific date for a vote has not been set.

"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," Sen. Patty Murray said in a June 21 release. "I was proud to work closely with Rep. 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 Rep. Dicks, 6th Congressional District.

Two-thirds of 500 people in the 6th District surveyed in a poll on June 13 commissioned by the Wild Olympics Coalition support the act.

Conducted by GCA Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group, the survey found 64 percent favored the act, 15 percent opposed it, and 20 percent were undecided.

"The whole idea of protecting the watersheds is for everyone's benefit, essentially," said Connie Gallant, Wild Olympics Coalition chair, who lives in Quilcene.

The coalition is one of the act's supporters. Gallant said the group is composed of 10 conservation organizations and has worked throughout the region to build support and get the act to this stage.

"I feel that right now it's basically out of my hands," Gallant said.

Carol Johnson, executive director of the North Olympic Timber Action Committee, said her group is opposed to the Wild Olympics act because of its potential impact on jobs.

"We want no net loss of working timber acres, because that's where the jobs come from," Johnson said.

Evolving proposal

Gallant said the groups comprising the Wild Olympics Coalition started discussing the proposal in 2007. She said they had their first public meeting at the Jefferson County Library in September 2009.

As the project moved forward, Gallant said, the group spent more and more time in the Grays Harbor area trying to convince residents about the proposal's benefits.

"It was pretty contentious, because the timber industry has been such an economic force, especially in Grays [Harbor] county," she said.

Tim Gibbs, CEO of Greater Grays Harbor Inc., said he'd like the community to come together and move forward on the issue.
"We have a highly divided community," Gibbs said. "Emotions are extremely high. I think it's difficult to move ahead on other issues."

Greater Grays Harbor Inc. is a combined organization of the area's chamber of commerce and economic development council. Gibbs said changing economic conditions and environmental regulations have hit the area hard.

"The harbor historically has been one of the largest producers of timber, wood products and natural resources in the country," he said. "Many of the jobs we used to have no longer exist here."