Murray wants Olympic Peninsula land protected

Senator's bill calls for wilderness designation for 126,000-plus acres

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Washington Sen. Patty Murray on Friday introduced a bill to permanently protect more than 126,000 acres of Washington's Olympic Peninsula — an area the size of Seattle and Tacoma combined.

It's the latest step in a campaign that's been underway for years. The designation of more wilderness around the forested fringes of Olympic National Park is a priority for environmentalists, hikers and local businesses on the peninsula. It's also reviving resentment from those who say forest protection comes at the expense of timber-cutting and lumber-milling jobs.

If passed by Congress and approved by the president, Murray's proposal would mean no more logging, mining, commercial development or motorized vehicle access on those 126,000 acres of rugged foothills of the Olympic Mountains.

It would also designate 19 rivers on the peninsula as wild and scenic. That means no dams or other infrastructure could be built on those rivers.

Writer and environmentalist Tim McNulty, who supports the wilderness designation, is more interested in the kind of human activities that would continue.

"All the recreational uses fishing, hiking, rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, camping, backpacking, bird watching, nature study the whole slew of recreational activities are absolutely permitted in wilderness areas," said McNulty, who is part of the Wild Olympics Campaign.

McNulty spoke while standing on the banks of the Gray Wolf River, which drops more than 5,000 feet in elevation on its 25-mile run from the Olympic Mountains to where it empties into the Dungeness River near the town of Sequim.

He's worried that sections of the Olympic National Forest, could be opened up for clear-cutting if they're not given permanent wilderness protection. Some clear-cutting is allowed on National Forest lands.

He grabbed his binoculars as two slate-gray birds flitted by, just above the white caps of the rushing river.

"OK. We're watching a pair of dippers. One just landed on a rock upstream," he said.

"We don't know what the future is going to hold, but we do know that designated wilderness protection passed by Congress, signed by the president, is, for the most part, pretty permanent protection," McNulty said.

It's the timber industry that has the most to lose here.

"The reality is we have a lot of land that is protected," said Carol Johnson, executive director of the North Olympic Timber Action Committee. The group opposes further restriction on logging on the peninsula. "What we find is that over the last 50 years there are a lot of layers of rules or regulations that are put upon our resource industry and it starts to put real strains on the economy."

Along U.S. Highway 101 near Port Angeles are signs in yards and along storefronts opposing the Wild Olympics campaign. The signs say things like "Working Forests, Working Families."

The Wild Olympics legislation may be considered bad news by people who want to log, mine or put dams or other infrastructure in those 126,000 acres and 19 rivers. But it's not technically a "land grab," as some critics call it. Those acres are already under federal control as part of the Olympic National Forest.

Similar legislation was introduced by Murray and then-Rep. Norm Dicks in 2012, but it didn't pass.