The divisive Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday, some eight years after it was first introduced by Sen. Patty Murray and then-Congressman Norm Dicks in 2012.
The Act, which designates more than 126,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest as wilderness and 464 Olympic Peninsula river miles as Wild and Scenic, has undergone numerous modifications over the years and had never made it to a vote in either chamber until Wednesday’s passage.
Congressman Derek Kilmer has led the push for the Act in the House, taking over for original co-author Dicks when Kilmer took office in 2013. The Act passed the House 231-183 Wednesday, with six Republicans joining the 225 Democrats who voted yes. Murray continues to promote the legislation in the Senate, where the Act will now go for consideration.
“I’m proud to see the House pass this practical, balanced strategy, that will protect the wildest and most pristine places on the Peninsula while ensuring we can keep and grow jobs in our natural resource industries and other sectors,” said Kilmer. “I am grateful for the years-long collaboration to create a proposal that works for folks across the community – including tribes, sportsmen, conservation groups, timber communities, business leaders, shellfish growers, and everyone in between.”
Murray said, “I’m thrilled to see the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild Scenic Rivers pass the House this week — an important step in ensuring that future generations can continue to enjoy the Olympic Peninsula’s vital resources and beauty. I applaud Representative Kilmer, local tribes, community leaders, sportsmen, and countless Olympic Peninsula residents for their tireless efforts to get to this point, and I am committed to keeping up the fight in the Senate to ensure this critical legislation becomes law and our prized and pristine wilderness is protected.”
Proponents of the Act claimed more than 800 “community leaders” supported its provisions and say access to roads and trailheads would not be negatively impacted by the Act. Opponents believe the Act limits access to these areas and takes away the ability to properly manage forests.
The American Forest Resource Council represents Washington forest products manufacturers, family-owned logging companies and the thousands of workers they employ on the Olympic Peninsula. President Travis Joseph had the following to say about the passage of the Wild Olympics Act.
“For years, we have provided substantial feedback and specific recommendations to minimize the impact of the Wild Olympics proposal to local businesses, forest health, and rural communities – including public safety risks created by wildfire. While marginal changes have been made to the Wild Olympics legislation, most of our industry’s concerns have not been addressed,” said Joseph.
“Wild Olympics proponents have made false claims that this wilderness bill is non-controversial and does not impact working forests,” he continued. “By definition, wilderness explicitly bans – forever – science-based active forest management that can help achieve important conservation goals. It also bans certain forms of access and activities the public enjoys, like riding a mountain bike.”
Mitzi Schindele, President of the Peninsula Access Coalition, said wilderness designation is “a great instrument when used appropriately. For the Olympic Peninsula we are at capacity with one million acres currently designated as wilderness. We do not support additional wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula.”
Proper management of the wilderness would be adversely impacted by the designation, say opponents.
“In our view, putting arbitrary lines around a dynamic, at-risk ecosystem and prohibiting any and all forms of responsible, sustainable management won’t deliver the restoration, resiliency, and true conservation Washingtonians expect and deserve,” said Joseph. “The designations also come with costly new procedural requirements for the staff of the Olympic National Forest, only further reducing their ability to address a growing maintenance backlog and plan actual on-the-ground projects.”
Schindele echoed that sentiment, saying, “The majority of responsibility for management would land on the shoulders of the Forest Service. They already struggle with declining budgets and are understaffed. They will immediately be required to survey the entire border of new wilderness and then would be required to restructure their land management plans, at their expense.”
Joseph hopes Congress will focus on the federal forest health crisis threatening rural communities and local business statewide.
“A good place to start would be the Olympic National Forest, which only achieved 17 percent of its timber harvest target last year — the lowest in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “Our industry will continue to make strategic investments where they can count on a predictable, sustainable supply of timber. In the future, we hope those investments can be made on the Olympic Peninsula.”