In wilderness politics, progress is measured by the acre. For the least productive Congress in U.S. history, it’s measured by discernible signs of life.
Wednesday signaled progress on both fronts.
By voice vote, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act. Despite the mouthful-of-a title, the proposal is relatively modest. The legislation would add approximately 30 miles of the Snoqualmie River and 10 miles of the Pratt River to the National Wild and Scenic River System. It also would protect 22,000 acres of wilderness adjoining the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.
The additions to Alpine Lakes make whole the promise of one of the most utilized and accessible wilderness areas in North America, smack in our back yard. It includes dense, low-elevation forest supporting bobcats, cougars, elk and other wildlife and has generated support from hunters, fishers and small business owners. It’s also emblematic of a long tradition of Northwest bipartisanship to safeguard wild places for future generations. Bravo to Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, the original sponsor, whose district no longer includes the wilderness, but who still teamed with Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene to move the bill.
In 1976, when the original Alpine Lakes Wilderness Act passed, only one member of Washington’s delegation, Democrat Mike McCormick, opposed it. Today, Republican Doc Hastings, chairman of the committee, holds McCormick’s Fourth District seat. Hastings’ monkeying with the hyper-vetted boundaries, including erasing the Pratt River connector trail and more than 600 acres of easy-to-access wildlands, illustrates an axiom of the 113th Congress, that no good bill goes unpunished.
“The proposed deletion of low-elevation mature forests along the Pratt Connector Trail is a great concern,” said Tom Uniack, conservation director of Washington Wild. “These lands are worthy of wilderness designation.”
Uniack, along with the Wilderness Society’s Ben Greuel, are disheartened by Hastings’ 11th-hour spoilers after years of meticulous negotiations with hundreds of businesses, lawmakers, agencies and nonprofits. And it’s no small point.
“The central lesson of wilderness debates in the Oregon and Washington Cascades — one that applies nationally — is that boundaries matter,” wrote Kevin Marsh in his book, “Drawing Lines in the Forest.”
There’s still time to make it right. As lawmakers reconcile the amended House proposal with the original version of Sen. Patty Murray’s bill that passed in the U.S. Senate, Hastings’ ill-considered deletions can and should be unmade.