On the 25th anniversary of the Washington State Wilderness Act, these guest columnists reflect on Washington's long tradition of bipartisan support for protecting national forest lands.
AMONG things Washingtonians can celebrate this holiday weekend is something our congressional delegation did 25 years ago today. The Washington State Wilderness Act was enacted July 3, 1984, giving the strongest possible protection as wilderness areas to more than 1 million acres of national forest lands across our state.
Rising above Bellingham, the bulk of Mount Baker was protected in a 118,000-acre wilderness area. Areas nearly that large were added to the already established Glacier Peak Wilderness. Bracketing the western and southern boundaries of Olympic National Park, the law established five new wilderness areas, including The Brothers Wilderness, which protected the western slopes of that double-topped peak so familiar on the western skyline from Seattle.
Since then, other familiar wild gems of our state were given this highest protection possible for areas of our federal lands, protection provided by Congress under the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964.
Today, many who enjoy these great places for family hiking adventures, fishing or hunting trips, or a quiet cross-country ski tour beyond the whine of motors, may not give much thought to the fact that it took a spirited effort to secure the protection of these wild treasures — and that there are other such places long waiting for the same protection.
Wilderness areas are established only by an act of Congress. And Congress passes such laws only because thousands of people get involved, with conservation-minded elected officials stepping forward to lead the effort.
Our state has fostered more than its share of elected leaders who have worked to protect our wilderness heritage. One was Democratic Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who died while this legislation was moving through Congress. Up the headwaters of the Skykomish River, Congress honored this son of Everett by establishing the 100,000-acre Henry M. Jackson Wilderness.
The 1984 legislation itself was created by the entire delegation working together across partisan lines. Some House members focused on areas in their own districts, including Republican Sid Morrison, who helped protect the 150,000-acre Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness, and Democrat Norm Dicks, who championed the Clearwater Wilderness along the northern boundary of Mount Rainier National Park.
Those from urban districts, including Republican Joel Pritchard and Democrat Mike Lowry, spoke up on behalf of the thousands of their constituents who use these protected federal lands. And, after Sen. Jackson’s death, both Sens. Slade Gorton and Dan Evans were key to Senate action.
The work of these and other legislators on the 1984 law reflected the bipartisan tradition of wilderness protection, a tradition carried forward by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen as they worked tirelessly with colleagues of both parties for the success of the Wild Sky Wilderness legislation in 2008. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Congressman Jay Inslee, as members of the committees that handle wilderness legislation, provided vital assistance.
This spirit continues today, with Democrat Murray and Republican Congressman Dave Reichert working together on their pending bill to add western lowlands to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Earlier this year, President Obama signed a law that designated several million acres of new wilderness, including six new wilderness areas in the Owyhee Canyonlands region of southwestern Idaho, and numerous new wilderness areas in both Oregon and California.
With the tradition of our 1984 Washington wilderness law and the Wild Sky Wilderness in mind, as well as the scale of these newest multi-wilderness laws in other states, outdoors-minded people across Washington state are working on new initiatives to gain the same protection for local areas they treasure.
Much work remains to be done for Washingtonians to assure that wilderness is an essential part of our future, not just our past.
Bill Arthur represents Sierra Club; Tom Uniack, the Washington Wilderness Coalition; and Jon Owen, the Campaign for America’s Wilderness.