INDEX — The Wild Sky Wilderness just got a little bigger.
Last week, 345 acres of land in the wilderness were transferred from private to public ownership through the Wilderness Land Trust, a conservation group. The Wild Sky is a 106,577-acre protected area within Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, east of Index and north of Skykomish. It was designated in 2008.
The purchase near Silvertip Peak is in an area only accessible to hikers via Monte Cristo, an old mining boom town off the Mountain Loop Highway. Other nearby tracts bought by the land trust include several lodes: West Seattle, Jumbo, Idaho, Hazel and Greater New York. Those are still pending transfer.
The term “wilderness” designates areas with the highest protections possible under federal law. Approximately 111.7 million acres of wilderness land exist in the United States. However, within those areas still exist pockets of private land that date back over 100 years.
These often include mining claims, old hunting camps and railway land grants. They are called “in-holdings” and there are 180,000 acres of them in wilderness areas. They were grandfathered in, because they existed before the wilderness protections did.
“Private land doesn’t have the same protections as the wilderness surrounding them, so they can be developed to residential or commercial use,” said Margosia Jadkowski, a spokesperson for the Wilderness Land Trust. “You can build homes on them, you could build a resort on them, mine them, log them, so there’s really no protection for them. When that development happens, it can have a really big impact on the surrounding wilderness area.”
The Wilderness Land Trust looks for these properties and then offers fair market value for them, Jadkowski said. The organization is 31 years old and was founded with the purpose of being a third-party to assist in land transfers.
The land trust comes across many people who are looking to sell their property to add to the local wilderness, but the process to do so can stretch for years. Still, plats can be bought and held until the full transfer process goes through.
That way, landowners get compensated earlier and their part of the process is closed out earlier. Over the past 30 years, Wilderness Land Trust has transferred 540 properties, totaling 55,500 acres across the West.
“A lot of times (a purchase agreement) that’s a four-, five-, six-, seven-year process for the federal agency to be able to do that and most landowners aren’t willing to wait that long,” Jadkowski said. “When they sell, they want to sell for a variety of reasons.”
Many of these properties are in the Silver Creek drainage, a creek that flows from the alpine Silver Lake along the slopes of Silvertip Peak. That drainage contains nearly all the remaining private holdings in the Wild Sky Wilderness and nearly one-third of all privately owned Washington in-holdings.
The land trust has completed projects in the Glacier Peak, Mount Baker, Stephen Mather and Juniper Dunes wildernesses.
The 345-acre plat is the fifth local property fully transferred to public use by the land trust. Another five properties in the Wild Sky Wilderness have been purchased and are awaiting transfer.
Extensive logging began in the Silver Creek drainage in the 1920s and continued for 70 years. A variety of mining claims and past mining activity can be seen in the area.
“We purchase those properties and transfer them to public ownership to whatever agency the surrounding wilderness is managed by,” Jadkowski said. “If it’s a true wilderness in-holding, then that land automatically becomes part of the designated wilderness. It doesn’t require an act of Congress, like normal designations do.”
The Wild Sky sees up to 200 inches of precipitation a year, making it critical for watershed health, according the Forest Service. The area drains into the Skykomish River which, in turn, twists into the Snoqualmie River to become the Snohomish River. Salmon spawn in the snow-fed rivers, making it even more critical to protect.
Work to acquire other properties in the area will continue, Jadkowski said, as the organization continues to protect more land.
“Federally designated wilderness is a really powerful tool for protecting these places for future generations,” Jadkowski said. “I think that’s a big, underlying part of our work.”