Those who pushed for Wild Sky Wilderness celebrate its 5-year mark

INDEX — Five years later, Wild Sky is still wild.

This was precisely the goal of the people who pushed for the creation of the Wild Sky Wilderness area in the Cascade Mountains — to set aside a wild area to make sure it stays that way.

About 60 people gathered in Index on Tuesday to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the designation of more than 106,000 acres near Index as off-limits to any kind of development.

“This is a big deal,” said Meg Town, who formerly lived near Index and now lives in Duvall. “This is a special area.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen, who saw the measure through Congress, attended.

“Hundreds of years from now people will walk through there and see what we see today,” Murray told the crowd of environmental activists, local residents and others, gathered outside the Outdoor Adventures Center in Index.

Larsen was elected in 2000, and he and Murray were given a guided hike into the area in 2001.

“I got excited about that effort right away,” Larsen told the crowd Tuesday.

At the time, Larsen’s district encompassed the area proposed for the Wild Sky Wilderness. The districts were changed beginning this year, with Larsen now representing a coastal strip from Lynnwood to Bellingham, including Whidbey, Camano and the San Juan islands.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene now represents Index, part of the 1st Congressional District that stretches from Bellevue to the Canadian border.

In the wilderness, logging, road building, motorized vehicles and other industrial uses are banned. Hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and rafting are allowed.

Murray and Larsen, both Democrats, encountered opposition from across the aisle in both the Senate and the House.

Locally, some farmers, ranchers, east Snohomish County politicians and recreation advocates argued that restrictions on federal land are unfair to the public that owns them.

The wilderness designation would make it difficult to thin diseased trees or use bulldozers to help fight future forest fires, some opponents argued.

Changes were made to the plan. The area was pared from its originally proposed 130,000 acres. Land was set aside to accommodate snowmobilers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

Murray and Larsen found bipartisan support, Congress approved the measure and President George W. Bush signed it into law in May 2008.

The area includes ragged mountain tops, valleys and low-elevation old-growth forest near salmon spawning streams. The wilderness preserves “wildlife corridors,” or areas that animals use to travel from one area to another. A lynx, rare in Western Washington, was seen in the wilderness a few years ago, said Mike Town of Friends of The Wild Sky, Meg’s husband.

Much of the Wild Sky is relatively low in elevation, allowing easy access for recreation while protecting wildlife habitat, proponents have said.

A U.S. Forest Service plan could add more trails to Wild Sky. There are currently 67 miles of documented trails within or adjacent to the wilderness, according to the plan. About 115 miles in possible new trails have been identified, and the plan lists about 60 miles of these as high or moderate priority. There’s currently no funding for the plan, however, said Tom Davis, a ranger at the Skykomish Station, who specializes in trails. The forest service often works with volunteer groups to develop trails, and more are welcome, he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Murray was led on a guided hike through part of the wilderness by Mike Town and others.

Wild Sky was reached via the Iron Goat Trail east of Skykomish. The trail winds through a steep gulch where a Great Northern Railway trestle once stood.

After about a half-mile of switchbacks and up-and-down terrain, a sign marked the entrance to the Wild Sky Wilderness.

“It was worth every ounce of effort to go up there and see a place that’s so beautiful that families can enjoy for years and decades,” Murray said after the hike.

Wild Sky has been harder to reach than originally envisioned. The Index-Galena Road, which formerly led to some popular hiking areas that are now on the edge of Wild Sky, was washed out by a flood in 2006. The road is outside of the wilderness area and could be rebuilt, but there are no immediate plans for repair.

Still, those hiking areas, including Troublesome Creek and Bear Creek Falls, can be reached by a trail that goes around the washout, Mike Town said.

The Outdoor Adventures Center offers river rafting and other guided outdoor activities. Owner Bill Corson said visitors specifically ask about Wild Sky.

“We direct people up there every week,” he said.

Repairing the road will be key to getting more visitors into the wilderness, advocates said.

“Wild Sky is not the main attraction (in Index) right now,” resident Louise Lindgren said, “but it will be.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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