NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, December 14th, 2020

The Snoqulamie’s Middle Fork is Washington State’s latest conservation success story

The Mid­dle Fork of the Sno­qualmie Riv­er, east of North Bend, is the clos­est Cas­cade moun­tain val­ley to Seat­tle, the region’s largest city.

Two decades ago, it was large­ly ignored by fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments, and was rapid­ly becom­ing a moun­tain crime zone and trash dump.

The val­ley has expe­ri­enced a trans­for­ma­tion, although – as with every­thing wild and nat­ur­al – pro­tec­tion is an ongo­ing challenge.

A touch­stone in the valley’s recov­ery came last week, when the last, twen­ty-six acre par­cel of state-owned school trust land was incor­po­rat­ed into the Mid­dle Fork Sno­qualmie Nat­ur­al Resource Nat­ur­al Area.

Its pur­chase price was $140,000 out of the Trust Land Trans­fer Pro­gram, fund­ed by the Leg­is­la­ture. The mon­ey goes to the state’s Com­mon Schools Trust.

“This land­scape is a won­der for all to enjoy, and one that is now pre­served for all gen­er­a­tions,” said State Land Com­mis­sion­er Hilary Franz.

She described the val­ley as “amaz­ing.”

Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River

A riv­er bend in the Sno­qualmie River’s Mid­dle Fork (Pho­to: Neil Hodges, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

What’s real­ly amaz­ing is that the place has been saved, by cit­i­zens and pub­lic offi­cials, by those used to stitch­ing togeth­er good deeds and one guy whose spe­cial­ty in Con­gress was block­ing good deeds.

The Mid­dle Fork in the late 1990s was awful. Peo­ple hauled garbage there for dump­ing. A large meth lab was in oper­a­tion, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing soil and ground water. A group of Russ­ian crim­i­nal types ran an auto­mo­bile chop shop beneath Russ­ian Butte. The road, with deep pot­holes, was noto­ri­ous as an axle buster.

The ini­tial impe­tus to save the place came from the Alpine Lakes Pro­tec­tion Soci­ety (ALPS), the cit­i­zen group which cam­paigned for cre­ation of the 393,000-acre name­sake wilder­ness area, cre­at­ed by Con­gress in 1976.

Then-Gov­er­nor Dan Evans brought a pic­ture book to the White House in per­suad­ing Pres­i­dent Ford to sign the legislation.

We had Repub­li­can con­ser­va­tion­ists then.

The Mid­dle Fork is out­side the wilder­ness, but not out­side the purview of such con­ser­va­tion­ists as Red­mond teacher Mike Town.

ALPS vol­un­teers began haul­ing loads of trash out of the val­ley. They put heat on the U.S. For­est Ser­vice to be a bet­ter stew­ard of its holdings.

An unlike­ly bene­fac­tor emerged. Sen­a­tor Slade Gor­ton, R‑Washington, chaired the Sen­ate Inte­ri­or Appro­pri­a­tions Subcommittee.

Oppo­si­tion to old growth for­est preser­va­tion had put him on con­ser­va­tion­ists’ “Dirty Dozen” list. Seek­ing to bur­nish his image going into the 2000 cam­paign, Gor­ton found mon­ey for the val­ley. Cleanup of the meth lab cost a mil­lion bucks. The For­est Ser­vice put in a large camp­ground in mid-valley.

In turn, the camp­ground forced both the For­est Ser­vice and law enforce­ment to pay more atten­tion to the val­ley. When Gor­ton paid a vis­it to ded­i­cate the camp­ground, he received praise from con­ser­va­tion­ists and one jour­nal­ist long at odds with the sen­a­tor. “Why didn’t you write that before the elec­tion?” he asked. (Gor­ton was defeat­ed by Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell in 2000 in an upset.)

The sec­ond major preser­va­tion action came six years ago.

Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray and Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dave Reichert cospon­sored leg­is­la­tion to des­ig­nate the Mid­dle Fork under the fed­er­al Wild and Scenic Rivers pro­gram. They also sought to put the Pratt Riv­er val­ley into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Try as he might, Reichert could not move the bill through the Repub­li­can-run House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives: The chief obsta­cle was dour Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Doc Hast­ings, chair­man of the House Nat­ur­al Resources Committee.

Doc didn’t like wilder­ness, want­ed to gut the Endan­gered Species Act, and denounced Pres­i­dent Oba­ma for des­ig­nat­ing nation­al mon­u­ments, even one pro­tect­ing prized beau­ty spots in the San Juan Islands of his home state.

Mur­ray made a project of Hastings.

After the Oso land­slide, when Hast­ings asked what he could do to help, Mur­ray per­suad­ed him to push leg­is­la­tion that would pre­vent removal of the Green Moun­tain look­out, a pop­u­lar hik­ing des­ti­na­tion in the Glac­i­er Peak Wilderness.

The deed was done. Doc Hast­ings was due to retire from Con­gress in 2014. With gen­tle prod­ding from Mur­ray aid­ed by Reichert, he was at last per­suad­ed to let Mid­dle Fork pro­tec­tion and Pratt Riv­er wilder­ness go into an omnibus con­ser­va­tion bill. Sev­en years in the mak­ing, it passed.

The Mid­dle Fork is a trans­formed place.

Its clearcut­ting of state tim­ber­lands once prompt­ed the Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources to be giv­en a nick­name, “the Depart­ment of Noth­ing Remain­ing.” But the DNR has now con­served 23,000 acres in the com­bined Mid­dle Fork Sno­qualmie and near­by Mount Si Nat­ur­al Resources Con­ser­va­tion Areas.

Out­door recre­ation in the val­ley is also transformed.

If you bound­ed out to the end of the val­ley road, glo­ri­ous hik­ing beck­oned in the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilder­ness Area. Sev­en miles into scenic Williams Lake, and then a rock scram­ble up to LaBohn Gap.

One of the Chain Lakes tarns offered arguably the best skin­ny dip­ping in the Cas­cades, with rocks to dive off and 40 yards of icy cold water in between.

The upper road is long closed. But a net­work of new trails has emerged down­stream in the val­ley, tak­ing you beside rush­ing waters and beneath moun­tain cliffs. The walls of Mount Garfield can be ogled from down below, plus being an out­door lab­o­ra­to­ry for rock climbers.

Con­sult the Wash­ing­ton Trains Asso­ci­a­tion web­site for hikes in the val­ley, which is bare­ly an hour from pop­u­la­tion cen­ters of the Pugetopolis.

Kudos to the polit­i­cal fig­ures whose good deeds are vis­i­ble in the Mid­dle Fork. The val­ley is a Slade Gor­ton lega­cy, how­ev­er much we may dis­agree with his oth­er deeds. It is an exam­ple of Sen­a­tor Murray’s abil­i­ty to stitch togeth­er leg­is­la­tion with unlike­ly allies. On a mem­o­rably mis­er­able day, Mur­ray and Reichert trudged through the mud where forks of the Sno­qualmie Riv­er come togeth­er, try­ing to put a spot­light on the case for the Mid­dle Fork.

The Pratt Riv­er is a neat place, with a high-up series of lakes.

In his eight­ies, cel­e­brat­ing knee replace­ments, Dan Evans went skin­ny dip­ping in one of them. Hilary Franz has bur­nished the con­ser­va­tion role of DNR, from Blan­chard Moun­tain, south of Belling­ham to the banks of the Mid­dle Fork.

Still… as with most of our con­ser­va­tion achieve­ments, cit­i­zens applied the ini­tial pres­sure and began cleanup of the Mid­dle Fork.

It has been amus­ing, dur­ing cel­e­bra­tions in the val­ley, to see its own “first respon­ders” hang­ing back dur­ing speechi­fy­ing by officialdom.

We live in a cor­ner of Amer­i­ca that has not been used up. A lot of us choose to live here because you can eas­i­ly reach a place like the Mid­dle Fork, or lose your­self in more remote and wilder places.

Our lega­cy of con­ser­va­tion is strong, but our work is nev­er done.

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