As early as 1832, the idea had surfaced that America should protect unique wilderness areas as pioneering settlements moved westward. It was a hit-and-miss concept until 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order to create a National Park Service responsible for the nation’s parks, monuments and memorials.
The National Park System has grown to more than 450 areas of public reserve, but continuing population growth means the need to protect wilderness areas has increased, not diminished.
Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer hope to add 126,554 acres of federal land surrounding Olympic National Park as a designated wilderness, the highest level of federal protection. We hope they persevere in this quest and ultimately succeed.
Only 88,002 acres of the 630,000-acre Olympic National Forest have a wilderness designation.
Murray’s and Kilmer’s bill – the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act – also extends congressional wild and scenic protection to 19 Olympia peninsula rivers – such as the Duckabush, Elwha and Dosewallips – and seven of the rivers’ major tributaries.
It is no surprise that the American Forest Resource Council objects to the federal bill over concerns that it will kill jobs. U.S. House Republicans will no doubt use that slogan to oppose a practical conservation strategy that would benefit future generations.
Kilmer tried to calm the forest industry down. He acknowledged that a three-decade decline in timber harvests has hurt the Olympic peninsula economy, and said he supports a careful increase in timber harvests.
But 99 percent of the land the Murray-Kilmer bill would add to the designated wilderness is already protected from timber harvesting. Some is protected as old-growth areas, and the rest for a variety of other reasons.
Murray and Kilmer consulted many stakeholders before introducing their bill, and accommodated their concerns.
For example, private property owners on the borders of the proposed wilderness insisted the bill state specifically that the federal government will be responsible for fighting wildfires or insect infestations. And Murray and Kilmer trimmed 8,500 acres from the proposed wilderness area to preserve 100 miles of mountain bike trails.
Not all business interests share the knee-jerk reaction of the forest industry. Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton is supporting the measure. Owner Bill Taylor says protecting upland forests and river watersheds benefits his industry and ensures shellfish harvesting jobs in the long-term.
This is the second go-around for Murray. Two years ago, she proposed a similar bill with former Rep. Norm Dicks that was blocked by House Republicans.
This new and improved version of the Wild Olympics Act might not get much further this year, but it should. It’s a good bill.