Wilderness addition protects popular recreation area

  • By Jessi Loerch Herald Writer
  • Friday, December 12, 2014 4:24pm
  • LifeExplore NW

“A lot of people feel that wilderness is change,” said Tom Uniack, conservation director for Washington Wild. “But what wilderness is really about is keeping something the same. Unless you do something to keep something the same, it is going to change.”

On Friday, a new chunk of land was protected as wilderness in Washington state when 22,000 acres were added to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The bill passed the U.S. Senate after earlier passing the House. In the same area, nearly 40 miles of river received wild and scenic river protection off of I-90 on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and the Pratt rivers. Illabot Creek, which flows into the Skagit River, also received wild and scenic river protection.

The Middle Fork Snoqalmie Valley is a popular area for recreation. It’s used by mountain bikers, hikers, backpackers, rafters, kayakers, climbers, scramblers and more.

Uniack is particularly excited that so much of the land is low elevation. In our state, 94 percent of designated wilderness on national forest land is above 3,000 feet.

The last major wilderness designation in our state was the Wild Sky Wilderness in 2008, in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Wild Sky was 30 percent low elevation. This addition to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was 50 percent low elevation.

Uniack says low-elevation wilderness is important for three main reasons:

  • It protects old-growth and mature forests
  • It protects fish habitat
  • It provides areas for multi-season recreational opportunities for families.

With so many areas of wilderness at high elevation, most of them can only be reached for a portion of the year, unless you have mountaineering skills.

Areas like this newly protected area and Wild Sky offer recreation all year. They also have the benefit of being easy to access.

The Middle Fork Valley is only about an hour from Seattle. The road is even being paved, which will improve access and fish habitat at the same time.

Crafting a plan for protection of the valley required a careful balancing act. Uniack is proud of how many groups came together to make it happen, including those representing fishermen, boaters, hikers, climbers and mountain bikers. Getting a coalition together also helped get the bill into Congress. The bill was first introduced in 2007.

“Our Congressional champions have been awesome,” Uniack said. “Sen. (Patty) Murray and Congresswoman (Suzan) DelBene and Congressman (Dave) Reichert have been tireless advocates for this effort. They’ve just never given up. It’s hard to pass a law in Congress. But if you get local support and have the patience to get to the finish, it’s well worth the work.”

One important piece of work was preserving mountain bike access for the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Trail, a popular mountain biking spot. Bikes are not allowed within wilderness.

Glenn Glover, executive director of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, said the important part for his group was finding a balance between access and protection.

Ultimately, the wilderness boundaries were adjusted to avoid the mountain bike trail. In order to ensure protection for Middle Fork Snoqualmie and the Pratt River, the groups pushed for them to be designated as wild and scenic rivers.

“We were looking for a way to not be in opposition to the lands protection,” Glover said. “We don’t want to be in opposition. Mountain bikers are conservationists at heart.”

Once it was clear mountain biking would be allowed in the protection plan, Glover said his group was vocally supportive of the wilderness and river protections.

“We’re pleased to have been able to find a compromise that we’re fully able to support and it’s kind of unique in that regard.”

It’s not very often, he said, that a bike group is able support a wilderness designation.

Wild and scenic rivers must be managed to protect and enhance the values for which the river is designated. In this case, that includes recreation. They must also be maintained in their free-flowing state.

Both of those points are something that Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, cares about deeply.

“It’s just a spectacularly stunning landscape,” O’Keefe said. He’s pleased to see it protected, and not just for boaters.

“It is an exceptional valley for outdoor recreation,” he said. “It has it all, really: The driving for pleasure, the whitewater boating, the fishing, the mountain biking, the hiking. There’s scrambling, for those who want more of a challenge, or people drop into the basin for backcountry skiing. And there are a couple of big walls in there that people use for climbing. So it really has all the activities and it’s concentrated in a small, accessible area. … I can’t think of an area that has these resources so close to an urban area … this is pretty unique.”

Jessi Loerch: 425-339-3046; jloerch@heraldnet.com.

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