Congressman Derek Kilmer’s Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee for possible consideration on the House floor.
H.R. 2642 would designate 126,000-plus acres — almost 200 square miles, an area roughly 2 1/2 times the size of Seattle — of Olympic National Forest land as wilderness, and 19 rivers and their tributaries – 464 river miles – as Wild and Scenic rivers.
Supporters of the act lauded this latest move as a step in the right direction toward protecting water quality, salmon habitat and forests, while expanding recreation opportunities, including hiking, boating, hunting and fishing without closing any roads or trailhead access.
Opponents argue the act makes access to multi-use lands more difficult and takes tens of thousands of acres of second-growth harvestable timber out of the economy.
Kilmer and the Wild Olympics Campaign say the act has gained broad support after years of community input on the legislation, which was first drafted by then-Congressman Norm Dicks and Sen. Patty Murray in 2012. The legislation has been re-introduced in various forms four times since; this is the first time it has made it out of committee for consideration in either the House or the Senate.
“Since its inception the proposal has really evolved, through really extensive public engagement with business leaders, Native American tribes, timber communities, conservation groups, shellfish growers, and everybody in between, with the hopes of creating a bill that worked for our local communities,” said Kilmer. “And it’s because of that extensive public outreach that this bill is now formally supported by more than 800 community leaders. And we’re talking Democrats and Republicans, business owners, sportsmen, mayors, county commissioners, tribal leaders, who all agree that this proposal moves our region in the right direction.”
Disagreement on the effects
The Act’s opponents say it limits access, rather than expanding it.
“Our concern is that included in the 126,000-some acres is they want to take multi-use land and restrict it by putting the wilderness designation on it,” said Dan Boeholt, a vocal proponent for access to public lands and part of the group Working Wild Olympics, which opposes the legislation.
The wilderness designation “is the most restrictive designation you can have,” said Boeholt. “The Wilderness Act said no mechanical transport, which means no mountain bikes, no strollers,” restricting access to these public lands.
A spokesman for the Wild Olympics Campaign said the wilderness designation means you can’t ride mountain bikes in wilderness areas, but wheelchairs are allowed. The Forest Service manual directing implementation of the Wilderness Act states that wheelchairs (when used as necessary medical appliances) are OK, as are skis, snowshoes, rafts, canoes, sleds and “similar primitive devices without moving parts.” Not allowed are bicycles, sailboats, carts and wagons.
Boeholt said there are 65 miles of road included in the wilderness designation under the act. He said his concern is that, while the act doesn’t close these roads, the access they provide is severely limited by the no mechanical transport requirement, and opens the door to the Forest Service shutting down roads on their own.
Kilmer said it’s important to consider what the passage of the act would not do.
“The bill in its current form will not close, decommission or otherwise restrict access to any existing Forest Service road or trailhead,” he said.
It also, said Kilmer, would not affect private property rights. Early versions of the Dicks/Murray bill did contain provisions for federal money to purchase some private lands to include under the act, but part of Kilmer and Murray’s public outreach since guided them to remove those provisions.
“We heard people say, don’t include provisions that may impact private property owners,” said Kilmer. “We not only removed those but added language to say that nothing in the act can impact private property owners and rights.”
As far as timber harvest, Kilmer said, “The act, in its current form, will not impact the harvestable timber base in the Olympic National Forest.”
Boeholt argues there’s 40-50,000 acres of harvestable second growth timber within the land set aside for wilderness designation under the act. He said that land unmanaged does nothing for the economy and isn’t productive as habitat either.
The Wild Olympics Campaign maintains that the act will not impact timber jobs because the areas it protects “almost exclusively” are already off-limits under current forest management rules.
Management and maintenance of access in the wilderness area will be left to the Forest Service, which opponents say provides another reason for the Forest Service to decommission or close roads altogether. Proponents say the act requires that existing access to the wilderness area must be maintained; opponents say there is no way to guarantee it would be.
Proponents have sought and received broad support from the public and elected officials.
“In an era where we are witnessing unprecedented rollbacks of environmental safeguards on federal public lands, the Wild Olympics legislation would permanently protect some of the healthiest, intact salmon habitat left on the Peninsula,” said Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp.
Fred Rakevich, a retired logger from Elma who worked half a century in the timber business, supports the act, saying “Timber is and always will be part of the Olympic Peninsula’s proud heritage. But our ancient forests and wild rivers are the natural legacy we will leave to our children and grandchildren. Senator Murray and Representative Kilmer’s bill protects our natural heritage while respecting our timber heritage.”
Local elected officials, including Hoquiam Mayor Jasmine Dickhoff, Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, 24th District representatives Mike Chapman and Steve Tharinger, support the act.
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, of the 19th District, who has worked as a forester, does not support the bill.
“I don’t believe it’s needed and I still don’t support the bill,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any identified threats to those watersheds and I haven’t observed any willingness to get in and deal with the previously managed parts of this proposal.”
That includes “vast acreage” of Douglas fir plantations “that in my opinion would benefit habitat and wildlife, they just need to have some management done. In my opinion this proposal would preclude that, or at least make it much more difficult.”
As for the Forest Service maintaining access under any designation, “there’s so many opportunities for improving and enhancing recreational opportunity on the Olympic National Forest and I’ve just see no willingness from the Forest Service at all to invest in recreational infrastructure. In fact, it appears their goal is to disrupt existing recreational infrastructure.”
The Wild and Scenic River designation on 19 rivers and six tributaries has its own set of restrictions, including a 1/4-mile buffer zone on each side of each river and tributary. Boeholt said there are three components to the designation: the “wild” part, “where you can’t build trails or roads so access to that part of the river is going to be really rugged;” scenic, “which allows the possibility of a trail or road but it’s still limited;” and a recreational component, which is “actually a good thing that promotes the development of access, launches, and campgrounds to bring economic development to the region.”
However, Boeholt said, “when they tell everybody it’s going to bring all this tourism it’s a smoke screen.” The practical result of the designation is access to the rivers would suffer.
“The idea that the Wild and Scenic designation restricts access, that is false,” said the Wild Olympics Campaign spokesman. “Basically the Forest Service has to manage the resources for the values for which the river is designated, to protect and enhance the values, and typically one of those values is recreation. That includes fishing and hunting access. Right now under current Forest Service rules they only have to manage to protect fish resources, but not necessarily required by any sort of statute to enhance recreation.”
Kilmer said there is diverse support for the Wild and Scenic Rivers component of the Act.
“I think we’re seeing sportsmen support it because they understand we need to protect our clean water and habitat if we want to maintain our salmon runs,” he said. “We’ve heard from shellfish growers that say these waterways are important to us because we depend on clean water.”
Business leaders around the rivers are also supportive, said Kilmer.
“We hear from a lot of local business and government leaders say the region needs more jobs. If you look around the country, when these designations happen it drives more economic opportunities,” said Kilmer.
Kilmer said there is also federal money available specifically for areas with wild and scenic river and wilderness designations.
“There are pots of money within the federal budget available for those areas,” he said.
Kilmer grew up on the Olympic Peninsula and has a background in economic development, and said his starting point with this and other legislation is “an appreciation for the extraordinary natural resources that we have in our region and a desire to ensure the things I work on respected both those assets and drives economic opportunity.”
The current form of the act, he said, respects the fact that the timber industry “has been and will continue to be an important leg of our economy,” but diversification of industry is key to economic development on the Peninsula.
“I know our outdoor economy can play an important role in that,” said Kilmer. A wide assortment of businesses would benefit from the wilderness and wild and scenic rivers designations, from small motels and bed and breakfasts to restaurants to fishing and tour guides.
“It’s not just about protecting these places for future generations. It’s about protecting and growing high quality jobs,” he said.
So what would be lost if the act fails to pass? According to the Wild Olympics Campaign, without the added protection of the designations afforded by the act, any new federal administration that comes into power could remove existing protections to federal public lands.
For Kilmer, failure of the act to pass would be a lost opportunity.
“The reason we have seen so much support out of the outdoor recreation and small business communities is they know when these areas are designated it brings tourists, and their pocketbooks, to the region,” said Kilmer.