SEATTLE — 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 several years. The designation of more wilderness around the forested fringes of Olympic National Park is a top priority for environmentalists, hikers and some 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 can 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,” says McNulty, who is part of the Wild Olympics Campaign.
McNulty is 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.
McNulty is worried that sections of the Olympic National Forest, like this one, 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 grabs his binoculars as two slate-gray birds flit 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 says.
Listen to a pair of American Dippers and the Gray Wolf River:
“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 says.
It’s the timber industry that has the most to lose here.
“The reality is we have a lot of land that is protected,” says 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”.
If you drive out U.S. Highway 101 toward Port Angeles you might have noticed signs in yards and along storefronts opposing the Wild Olympics campaign. They say things like “Working Forests, Working Families.”
The Bekkevars are one of those working families. Trisha Bekkevar wears a Carhartt vest. Her auburn hair is pinned neatly away from her face, flowing down her back. She’s lived on Bekkevar Farm for 32 years but her husband Dave’s family settled here back in 1910. He’s the third generation of Bekkevars who have farmed these hundred-or-so acres east of Port Angeles.
“We’re stewards of the lands and stewards of the forest,” says Trisha Bekkevar.
The Bekkevars also run a family logging business. They see the Wild Olympics campaign as a government “land grab” that will make life even harder for loggers.
“It’s all about government control,” Bekkevar says. “It’s the federal government and Patty Murray and people in the cities trying to control the people that are in rural areas out here. They’re just squashing everything.”
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.” 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.
“We have been working for a long time now on this legislation,” Murray said in an interview. “This is a great opportunity to preserve some of the jewels that we have in the state of Washington.”
Murray is a Democratic leader in the Senate, where her party holds the majority. Republicans control the House, where Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., introduced an identical version of the Wild Olympics bill. Kilmer represents the House district that Dicks held until his 2013 retirement.
Murray says the campaign appears to be building steam this time around. More than 250 businesses on the Olympic Peninsula have endorsed it, along with 50 elected officials. But she acknowledges it will still be a tough sell in Congress.
“I have done legislation like this before,” Murray said. “It doesn’t happen in a few days. Today is just the beginning of building that support in Congress and that’s what we’ll be working on.”