In Our View: Olympics Bill Finds Balance

Measure to protect wilderness strives to avoid further hindering timber industry

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Any legislative proposal that can be filed under the category of "conservation" is likely to generate some knee-jerk opposition. The standard reaction in some quarters is to label such legislation as "job-killing" or "anti-business" or "bad for the economy."

But when it comes to the recently introduced Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2014, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, has an effective retort for the naysayers.

"After conversations with the Forest Service and timber industry, I'm convinced that nearly all Forest Service land proposed for wilderness would never be commercially harvested and that these designations won't harm the timber industry," Kilmer said recently in introducing the bill in the House. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has sponsored a version in the Senate.

In supporting the bill, Kilmer was careful to politically straddle whatever imaginary fence existed: "That said, I also understand the views of those concerned that more needs to be done to responsibly increase harvest in our federal forests. I agree."

The Wild Olympics bill should sail through the legislative process, although that is unlikely to happen this year in a do-little Congress. The legislation would ban logging on 126,554 acres of the 633,000-acre Olympic National Forest and provide wild-and-scenic designation for 464 miles of salmon-rich Olympic Peninsula rivers. At the same time, language in the bill ensures that such designations will not affect private landowners in any fashion.

The key, as always, is to balance protection and production on forest lands while protecting the rights of landowners. This incarnation of the bill does that, and the need for it can be culled from two simple facts: Washington has fewer than 200 miles of rivers under the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system; Oregon has more than 1,900 miles of such rivers.

Washington long has prided itself on conservation efforts, yet the contrast with its closest relative — both geographically and philosophically — is glaring. "For me, revitalizing the economy and protecting the environment have been and will be an ongoing discussion and, frankly, introducing the bill does not end the conversation," Kilmer said.

Nor should it. Conservation will remain a difficult balancing act for as long as people inhabit regions of pristine beauty that are a hallmark of Washington. That balance can shift slightly over time, but Washingtonians who appreciate the state's ecology always will be cognizant of conservation measures.

Because of that, several other items being considered by Congress bear watching. A 14-mile stretch of Illabot Creek, a Skagit River tributary, is being considered for wild-and-scenic designation; the Senate has approved an Alpine Lakes Wilderness expansion; and in the Yakima River Basin, a compromise calling for designation of 200 miles of waterways might make its way into a bill.

But the Wild Olympics proposal likely will garner the most attention. Critics of the plan point out that Washington's timber counties suffer from chronic high unemployment, in part because of ever-increasing environmental constraints. That is what makes Kilmer's decision so significant. If the increased protection would, indeed, have little impact on lands that could actually be harvested, then there is little reason to oppose the bill.

The rhetoric that accompanies conservation measures always will attempt to reduce the issues to the environment versus jobs. But, as the Wild Olympics bill suggests, sometimes it doesn't need to be one or the other.