THE opposition to the Wild Olympics bill introduced in Congress recently is difficult to understand. This carefully crafted measure mostly codifies what’s already happening — or not happening — in the Olympic Peninsula’s forests and waters it would affect.
Introduced by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and freshman U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, the bill designates about 20 percent of Olympic National Forest — 126,000 acres — as wilderness, barring logging, roads and most other permanent human intrusions. That, of course, has generated opposition from timber interests.
But almost all that land has already been off-limits to loggers for 20 years, under former President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan. It’s more valuable for what it produces in its wild state: recreation opportunities, habitat for salmon and wildlife, and clean water for downstream commercial shellfish operations.
The legislation also adds stretches of 19 peninsula rivers and seven tributaries to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Some worry about the impact on private property rights, but there’s little, if any, private property along the designated rivers. It’s federal and state-owned land.
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Dams are prohibited on Wild and Scenic rivers. There aren’t any hydro projects proposed on peninsula streams now, but developers filed applications to tap rivers such as the Dosewallips and Hamma Hamma in the not-so-distant past. Better to close that door now, and for good.
The Olympic Peninsula has a long history of resisting federal land-protection initiatives; this legislation is no exception. To help reassure skeptics, Kilmer has wisely added language, not included in previous iterations of the bill, restating just what wilderness and wild-and-scenic designation would mean.
It wouldn’t affect existing water rights, for instance, or the Forest Service’s authority to combat forest fires.
The Wild Olympics bill would protect some important places: The popular trail to big-view Mount Ellinor, the towering old trees along the upper South Fork Skokomish River and Port Townsend’s municipal watershed.
But the places the legislation excludes also speak to the care its authors have taken to accommodate competing uses. One example: the network of popular nature trails through the rain forest just south of Lake Quinault. They often attract large parties of hikers, larger than what’s allowed in a wilderness area. So those trails were left out.
This legislation is the culmination of six years of painstaking work and compromise by peninsula conservationists. It’s time for Congress to reward their efforts and pass it.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).