Accusations of a "land grab" on the Olympic Peninsula were baseless, but seem to have won the debate over expanding Olympic National Park anyway.
A few years back when I was out on the Olympic Peninsula I saw red protest signs on more than a few fence lines and signposts:
“Stop Wild Olympics $900 Million Land Grab,” the signs read.
I asked somebody about it and he said the Olympic National Park wanted to force private landowners off their land so it could expand.
Hmm. When I got home I looked up “Wild Olympics.” It turned out a group of conservation groups really did want to expand the park. Only the program would be voluntary. The park could bid on key, ecologically important properties adjacent to its boundaries — thereby growing the park — but only if and when owners wanted to sell and were putting the lands on the market anyway.
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Not exactly a land grab. And not one that, if anyone sold, would cost anywhere near $900 million (the federal government only spends about $300 million annually on acquiring recreation lands in the entire nation).
I forgot about the protest because I figured it was so off-base it was no big deal. Olympic National Park is one of our crown jewels and a big economic engine in its own right, attracting 3 million visitors a year.
What could be wrong with it buying key resource lands if the public wanted to sell?
Then last week I saw that U.S. Congressman Norm Dicks and Sen. Patty Murray had dropped the idea of expanding the park. It was too controversial.
What happened? It turns out the protest may have worked, some activists say.
“The accusations of a land grab were completely baseless,” says Jason Bausher, an Aberdeen elk and bear hunter who supports the plan.
“But it was repeated and repeated again, even though it was false. In the end it stuck. It didn’t matter what was true.
“It’s disappointing that this is the way politics works.”
Yet it’s increasingly common.
Others say the park expansion failed more because local timber companies, the owners of the largest tracts of private land near the park, never got on board with it. Despite no requirement to sell, nor any mandate to sell to the government if they ever do sell, they were leery of anything that might reduce the amount of land open to logging.
The chairwoman of the Wild Olympics Campaign, Connie Gallant, of Quilcene, Jefferson County, said that is an understandable worry. But one that could be negotiated.
“We have had a good working relationship with the timber companies,” she said. “This isn’t a plan to shut down logging.”
But in the public debate, the facts of the proposal seemed secondary at times to a “rekindling of the old, bad feelings over the timber wars.”
“There’s so much suspicion out here about the government,” she said. “It seems to overwhelm everything else.”
With park expansion off the table, what’s left in the Wild Olympics plan is to designate the park’s rivers as “wild and scenic.” And also to convert 132,000 acres of National Forest land to a “wilderness” designation.
That would mean it can’t be logged (but apparently these particular lands — about 20 percent of the Olympic National Forest — aren’t being logged much anymore anyway). The point is to try to preserve the watersheds of the Olympic Mountains, while allowing logging in less-sensitive areas.
This isn’t going over very well, either, at least in some quarters. In advance of a town-hall meeting in Aberdeen this Thursday, protesters have put up a Web page of new suggested signs showing what they think of the proposal.
“Obama: Stop Grabbing Our Land. You’ve Taken Enough.”
“Dicks/Murray: Killing Families to Create Wilderness.”
And the capper:
“Obama’s Land Deal Power Grab. Get Off My Lawn.”
These seem to have a few factual shortcomings as well (not least that President Obama has probably never heard of the Wild Olympics plan).
But when it comes to what wins in politics, what’s true can rank far down the list.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.