Congress stands poised to take a meaningful step, including right here in Washington, toward President Joe Biden’s pledge to conserve 30% of American lands.
The Senate should follow the House in voting to designate 1.5 million acres of western wilderness for federal protection. That includes 126,000 acres of critical Olympic Peninsula land containing the area’s last unprotected old-growth forests.
The legislation would extend wilderness protection along the edges of Olympic National Park, adding to the nearly 1 million protected acres in the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness and smaller areas. It would also cover 19 area rivers and their tributaries, broadening federal support for salmon and steelhead habitat and drinking-water sources. More than half the lengths of the Dungeness and Elwha Rivers would gain protection, as would fir-lined ridges near U.S. 101 as it approaches Lake Quinault.
Large pristine areas of Colorado, California and Arizona — including around the Grand Canyon — would also gain protection from this legislation, packaged as the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act. The House passed this bill Feb. 26 in a 227-200 vote that largely fell along party lines. The House’s seven Washington Democrats supported it; all three state Republicans voted against it. The bill deserves stronger Senate bipartisan support.
The Wild Olympics Wilderness proposal has been close before. It was tucked in a bill that passed the House in 2020 but fell short in the then-Republican-led Senate. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has championed the proposal in the Capitol since 2012, this year holds a high rank within the Senate’s majority to help push the bill. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., supports it as well.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, sponsored the Olympics bill in the House and said the designation will neither diminish the amount of harvestable timber nor close forest service roads. Local tribes and outdoor aficionados support the wilderness expansion. The Olympic Mountains area is one of America’s great remaining natural treasures and should be preserved.
Biden’s goal calls for expanding conserved lands by more than 400 million acres by 2030, so significantly more effort is needed. But the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act can, and should, be done at once to advance this inspired plan and keep jewels of the Olympic Peninsula pristine.