Alpine Lakes addition marks Wilderness Act’s 50th

What the National Defense Authorization Act has to do with any of several public lands bills that Congress passed along with it and President Barack Obama signed into law on Friday is anyone’s guess. But, in recognition of the time of year, let’s not look a gift reindeer in the mouth.

Among the lands measures worth noting in Washington state were:

The creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which will preserve the Hanford B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland.

The reactor, the first full-sized nuclear reactor in the world, made the plutonium for the Trinity Test at Los Alamos, New Mexico and the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as well as much of the nuclear fuel used in the early days of the Cold War. It, and its sister reactors at Hanford, also produced radioactive waste that was left to dangerously molder at the reservation. While this must be the first combination national park and Superfund site, we can hope that creation of the historical park, along with recognizing Washington state’s role in an important part of world history, will refocus attention on completing the long-delayed cleanup of Hanford.

The expansion by 22,000 acres of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Snoqualmie Pass and Wild and Scenic River designations for Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt rivers.

While only about a fifth of the size of the Wild Sky Wilderness created by Congress in 2008, the expansion of Alpine Lakes is significant for a couple of reasons, said Tom Uniak of Washington Wild, which worked with Sen. Patty Murray and Reps. Dave Reichert and Suzan DelBene, on the measure, like Wild Sky before it, a bipartisan effort by the state’s Congressional delegation.

About 50 percent of the additional acreage, Uniak said, lies below 3,000 feet altitude, helping to rebalance a disproportionate percentage of designated wilderness that is more rock and ice than forest. Currently, only 6 percent of protected wilderness in Washington is below 3,000 feet. That lower-elevation wilderness provides more protection of mature and old-growth forests and salmon- and trout-spawning grounds and is more accessible for recreation.

The Wild and Scenic designation for the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie rivers adds to that watershed protection, Uniak said, but it also helped build support for the measure. The wilderness designation limits recreation to non-mechanized uses, and that includes mountain bikes. Using the Wild and Scenic designation, which isn’t as restrictive, the legislation was able to keep a popular trail along the Snoqualmie open to bikes, Uniak said, and secure that community’s support.

Likewise, Alpine Lakes supporters worked to respond to addressable concerns, adjusting boundaries so as not to effect avalanche control along I-90 or operations at the Alpental ski area.

Washington Wild now is focusing on similar wilderness designation for 126,000 acres of national forest land and Wild and Scenic designations for 19 rivers, this time on the Olympic Peninsula.

The expansion of Alpine Lakes makes a fitting cap for the 50th anniversary of the creation of the National Wilderness Act. As with Wild Sky and Alpine Lakes, it will likely take a few years to see the Wild Olympics bill reach the president’s desk, but it’s a good start on the act’s next 50 years.

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