Meet the wilderness in your back yard

Say hello to your new wilderness.

Wild Sky by name, the 106,000 acres of wilderness is just days away from being officially preserved forever.

The forest, which would get the strongest protection afforded federal land, features lowland old-growth trees, scenic rivers, rolling meadows and craggy Cascade peaks.

An act of Congress will leave it untrammeled, its supporters say.

All that remains to be done is for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to get a bill creating Wild Sky through the U.S. Senate, something she already has done three times. Then President Bush needs to sign the bill, something he has said he will do.

“Who would have thought, in my lifetime, that I would be able to pass on this legacy to future generations?” Murray said. “It’s going to make a difference for many generations to come.”

Wild Sky will become the first wilderness created on U.S. Forest Service land in Washington since 1984.

The wilderness area is on U.S. Forest Service land between the towns of Index and Skykomish, along the Beckler River and North Fork Skykomish River. It would be located just west of the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, which was established in 1984 and named after the late Everett senator.

“The best thing that will come out of visiting the Wild Sky wilderness is that you’ll want to visit it again,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. “It’s going to be that good of an experience.”

The desire to designate Wild Sky as wilderness grew out of a dozen people falling in love with the place after years of going there to play and bond with nature.

“Originally, it was just a wild place where I could go out and hike,” said Mike Town, an environmental education teacher from Duvall.

“As I got to know it better, I wanted to explore every inch of it,” he said. “I was very fascinated by the geology of it, and then the botany, why certain trees were growing in certain places.”

For more than two decades, Town has spent about 50 days per year walking throughout Wild Sky. But it wasn’t until he started bringing his students to Wild Sky that he realized his calling was to take steps to protect it.

“You tell the kids it’s not protected, and they wonder why,” Town said. “You get to the point where you have to say, ‘People haven’t fought for it to be protected.’ “

Soon, such explanations no longer will be needed.

Ask Larsen, and he’ll tell you that it isn’t supposed to be easy to take thousands of acres of public land out of resource production forever.

It’s been eight years since Town and some others hatched the wilderness concept, and five years since Larsen and Murray first introduced Wild Sky legislation in Congress.

Three times, the U.S. Senate has passed the bill. Three times Larsen wasn’t even able to get it to the House floor for a vote.

This all came after Larsen and Murray went to great lengths to carve out land for snowmobiling, for Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups and for letting seaplanes continue to use Lake Isabel. The legislation was so well balanced that President Bush’s staff called it a “good bill.”

The roadblock was former California congressman Richard Pombo, a Republican who twice prevented Wild Sky from getting to the House floor for a vote.

Pombo and his supporters maintained that Wild Sky should not qualify as wilderness because much of the land had been logged at least once, and because a road cuts through the middle of the forest.

“It’s not wilderness,” said Gary Yates, president of Timber Tamers 4X4 Club, a local offroading group that likes to ride in the Wild Sky area. “I don’t want to lose recreational opportunities, and we are.”

Larsen, who finally got Wild Sky through the House this year, disagreed.

“Wilderness areas should not be too inaccessible, otherwise you might as well put them in a zoo,” he said. “They ought to be usable to the public.”

Most wilderness land in Washington state is at high elevations, making it difficult for people to reach.

Wild Sky is a lot easier to visit.

Much of it consists of low-elevation river valleys. In addition, a road that bisects the wilderness was left out of the official boundary, which allows it to still be used and continue to provide exceptional access.

“What wilderness designation will do is highlight that area,” said Tom Uniack, conservation director for the Seattle-based Washington Wilderness Coalition. “I think people will look at as a little bit more of a destination.”

That may stir up the economy he said, bringing in new dollars to businesses such as Wild Lily Cabins Bed and Breakfast in Index.

“I very much so look at this as an opportunity,” said Barak Gale, owner of the bed and breakfast. “Most of the guests that we have come in for the beauty of nature here.”

Wilderness designation will also protect one of the last, best wild areas where steelhead and bull trout run, and where rare lowland old-growth trees hug the banks of wild rivers, supporters say.

Despite the ease of access, the wilderness designation will make it tougher for some people to enjoy the forest the way they do now.

Logging, mining, new structures and roads will all be banned in Wild Sky, said Gary Paull, wilderness and trails coordinator for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

So will using chain saws to clear trails, holding treasure hunts called “geocaching” and using electric drills to bore boltholes for rock climbing.

Paull doesn’t know how many people use the Wild Sky area now. He said the Forest Service does track trail usage in an imprecise way. The logbooks at six trails suggest that at least 9,000 people per year hike in the wilderness.

The trail to Barclay Lake, which was excluded from the wilderness area, gets about 10,000 visitors per year. The forest road that loops through the wilderness carries an unknown amount of traffic.

That road, which has three different names, connects Index to Skykomish via Jack Pass. The Index-Galena portion of the road was blown out by last November’s flooding and will take years to fix. A locked gate limits access to a portion of the road.

“One of the striking things to me about Wild Sky is there are really very few trails inside the proposed wilderness area,” Paull said. “We don’t expect a major increase in use with the (wilderness) designation.”

And that may be a good thing, Paull said.

“The idea is that you try to manage the wilderness so it does not degrade, socially, environmentally and physically,” he said. “Wilderness is managed partially for solitude and to preserve the opportunity for that.”

That solitude has been embraced by many of those who support the wilderness designation, including Gale, the Index bed and breakfast owner.

“When I go on hikes on a lot of the trails around here, and I come to one of those wilderness signs, it makes me think of the mezuza,” said Gale, who is Jewish.

Mezuzas are little boxes that Jews hang in doorways to hold prayers, symbolizing that a home is sacred. Traditionally, people touch and kiss the mezuza when they enter the home.

Usually, Gale said, when he walks past one of those signs, the land gets more beautiful and wild and becomes sacred.

“That sign is like a mezuza to me,” he said. “Actually, I like to touch it and kiss it.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

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