Wild Sky Wilderness bill finally clears Congress

Dreams of a Wild Sky Wilderness are a pen stroke from reality today.

A bill providing permanent federal protection on 106,000 acres of public land in eastern Snohomish County cleared its final hurdle in Congress on Tuesday and is headed to President Bush for approval.

The president is expected to sign the bill that would give Washington its first new wilderness area in a generation.

“It does feel real now,” said Tom Uniack, conservation director of the Washington Wilderness Coalition that campaigned for Wild Sky. “The bill has passed Congress and that has been the uphill hike.”

The final legislative action came Tuesday when the House of Representatives voted 291-117 to pass the Consolidated Natural Resources Act. This package of 61 different bills dealing mostly with federal properties includes legislation to create Wild Sky. The Senate approved the same bill April 10.

“There’s still one more step but this was the big one,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wa., said following the vote.

He and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa., steered the legislation through Congress and are anticipating Bush’s approval in mid-May.

“This is an incredible day,” said Murray, who started pursuing the creation of the wilderness area in 1999. “The spirit of Wild Sky has had to endure an awful lot over the days and years. We’re not going to celebrate until the bill is signed.”

The proposed wilderness would be north of U.S. 2 and the towns of Index and Skykomish. The area straddles the Beckler River and North Fork Skykomish River within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Wild Sky would include backcountry ridges and peaks and low-elevation, old-growth forests surrounding salmon and steelhead spawning grounds.

The wilderness designation imposes the strictest rules on what can and cannot occur on federally-owned lands. This bill would ban logging, mining and use of snowmobiles, off-road and other types of motorized vehicles.

It would enable hiking, hunting, fishing, rafting and other recreational activities. Also, float planes could continue using a large, high-mountain lake, and a paved recreation trail accommodating people in wheelchairs would be created.

Opponents of Wild Sky including farmers, ranchers, east Snohomish County politicians and recreation advocates, who have argued the restrictions on federal land are unfair to the public that owns them.

“Anytime we close down a large chunk of land to the majority of the population and we no longer manage it correctly, that concerns me,” said Dave Hurwitz, chairman of the Snowmobile Alliance of Western States.

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

Uniack said it’s an action about the future.

“Wilderness is about keeping things the same, retaining the quality of life we have in the Pacific Northwest and being able to pass it down to our grandchildren,” Uniack said.

Murray planted the initial seeds for Wild Sky in 1999 and Larsen joined the effort soon after taking office in 2001.

They each introduced legislation in their respective chambers in 2002 and worked through six years of political discord until Tuesday’s action.

The Senate passed versions of the bill in 2002 and 2004 and again in 2005. It could not clear the House of Representatives because former Republican Congressman Richard Pombo of California kept it bottled up in the natural resources committee he ran.

When Democrats gained control of the House — and the committee — they passed the bill in 2007. But then Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., succeeded in blocking the Senate from voting on it. Senate leadership finally cobbled together the majority needed to overcome Coburn earlier this month.

“Years from now, people won’t remember the struggle and effort that was put into protecting the Wild Sky, but for folks in the Sky Valley this will be one of our finest hours,” said Mike Town with the group Friends of the Wild Sky.

“This place is truly spectacular,” said Town, a Duvall teacher. “It’s a tremendous gift to the people of Snohomish County.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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