WASHINGTON — Less than an hour’s hop by car from Seattle lies a glacier-cut terrain dotted with 700 lakes, Sitka spruce forests and bull-trout runs.
It’s taken much longer — six years and counting — for Congress to approve an expansion of Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the closest federally designated wild lands to the Puget Sound metropolis.
It appears the legislation may finally pass on its fourth try.
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness bill was among a slew of proposals considered by a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday during a marathon hearing that displayed legislative focus on public-lands issues unseen in three previous Congresses.
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The Alpine Lakes bill already has cleared the Senate, where Democrat Patty Murray last month helped steer it through a voice vote. Rep. Dave Reichert, the Auburn Republican who first introduced the measure in 2007, is hoping to replicate that approval on the House floor.
Congressional passage would enlarge Alpine Lakes Wilderness by 22,000 acres and bring it several miles closer to Seattle’s backyard. Included in the expansion is a stretch of low-elevation lands along Interstate 90 as well as a small patch just north of Snoqualmie Pass.
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness area straddles King, Kittitas and Chelan counties along the Cascades. It is roughly bounded by Stevens Pass to the north and I-90 to the south.
Only Congress can declare wilderness areas. It’s the toughest form of protection for public lands and prohibits, among other things, commercial development, permanent roads and motorized or mechanized vehicles such as snowmobiles and mountain bikes.
In addition, the bill would give wild and scenic status to the 10-mile Pratt River and a 27-mile segment of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, whose headwaters flow from Alpine Lakes Wilderness snowmelt. The designation would keep both rivers free of dams and ensure clean water.
They would be Washington’s seventh and eighth designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, compared with 48 in Oregon.
Metropolitan King County Council member Reagan Dunn recalled first discussing the bill with Reichert in 2007 as a way to protect more primeval lands close to an urban core. Dunn fished, hunted and hiked in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness while growing up in Bellevue.
The legislation and its companion version in the Senate died in three consecutive Congresses. Rep. Doc Hastings, of Pasco, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has been hostile to designations for wilderness or national monuments that impose restrictions on land use.
The full House did approve the legislation by voice vote in 2010, but it expired in the Senate. Still, Hastings’ announcement last month that he would allow hearings on the Alpine Lakes bill was hailed as the best recent shot at passage.
“I am optimistic about it happening this year,” said Dunn, who testified Tuesday before the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.
Mike Matz, director of U.S. public lands for the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., blamed the previous failures to expand Alpine Lakes Wilderness more on legislative inertia than any organized opposition.
Wilderness designation has proved contentious in some parts of the country. On Monday, a federal judge ruled against a group that had opposed an order by the U.S. Forest Service to ban snowmobiles, motorcycles and other vehicles from areas of Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that had been recommended for wilderness status.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association, on the other hand, has endorsed the Alpine Lakes bill, saying the small, 5 percent expansion does not threaten access to any bike trails.
Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, testified for a bill she introduced to keep open the Green Mountain Lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness near Darrington. The lookout, which was damaged a decade ago, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
An environmental group sued to have the replacement lookout removed, arguing it violated environmental-review regulations as well as Glacier Peak’s wild nature. A U.S. District Court ordered the Forest Service to remove it. DelBene’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, would block its removal.
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