WASHINGTON — For the second time in two years, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is taking a stab at greatly enlarging the portion of Olympic National Forest that would receive highest federal protection as a designated wilderness.
Murray and fellow Washington state Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer have introduced a bill to put logging, dams and other development off-limits on 126,554 acres of federal lands on the Olympic Peninsula.
Currently, 88,002 acres of Olympic National Forest’s 630,000 acres have been declared wilderness areas. The forest surrounds the Olympic National Park.
The legislation also would designate 19 rivers, including the Elwha, and seven major tributaries as wild and scenic, ensuring congressional protection to preserve their free-flowing nature.
Only Congress can preserve virgin forests and wild rivers permanently from mining, drilling, dam building and other human intervention.
The bill largely mirrors the version Murray sponsored in 2012 with former Rep. Norm Dicks, Kilmer’s predecessor in the 6th Congressional District. But it does include new language on private-property rights, clarification on buffer zones and other changes prompted by concerns raised at sometimes-heated town-hall meetings since then.
For instance, Kilmer helped amend the bill to make it clear federal authorities have the power to fight wildfires or infestations, a provision inserted at the behest of private-property owners near the boundaries of the proposed wilderness zone.
The original bill itself was scaled back from what its supporters initially envisioned because of objections from timber companies, mountain bikers and others. The total proposed wilderness area was trimmed by 8,500 acres. Some 100 miles of mountain-bike trails were excluded because mechanized transport is barred in wilderness areas.
In addition, a provision was scuttled that could have expanded Olympic National Park by 37,000 acres by acquiring land from private owners willing to sell. Timber companies worried about the potential loss of harvest land as well as competition for sellers.
Connie Gallant, president of Olympic Forest Coalition and one of the organizers behind the wilderness plan, said supporters are prepared to be patient.
“Wilderness bills take a long time” to get enacted, said Gallant, of Quilcene. “The House Republicans are not amenable to wilderness bills.”
Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House National Resources Committee, favors more logging on federal lands and generally opposes expanding wilderness protection.
Kilmer also supports increased timber harvests, whose dramatic decline in the past 30 years have hit his district’s economy particularly hard. But Kilmer’s spokesman, Stephen Carter, said 99 percent of the land that would be set aside as wilderness is already protected as old-growth areas or for other reasons.
The shellfish industry is one of the largest employers in Kilmer’s district, and he said protecting forests and river watersheds would help generate jobs. Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Wash., one of the nation’s largest producers of Manila clams and geoducks, supports the Murray-Kilmer bill.