Patty Murray hiking the Wild Olympics
Patty Murray hiking the Wild Olympics

The $839 bil­lion Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA), approved Thurs­day by the Unit­ed States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives was qui­et­ly amend­ed before pas­sage to include Washington’s next major pub­lic lands preser­va­tion effort.

A decade in ges­ta­tion, the Wild Olympics Wilder­ness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would pro­tect 126,500 acres as wilder­ness – por­tions of Olympic Nation­al For­est sur­round­ing the name­sake nation­al park – while extend­ing Wild and Scenic Riv­er sta­tus to nine­teen rivers and tributaries.

The House had already passed Wild Olympics leg­is­la­tion ear­li­er this ses­sion, but the defense bill cre­ates anoth­er vehi­cle for the Sen­ate to com­plete action.

Senator Patty Murray during a Wild Olympics hike
Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray talks with local lead­ers dur­ing an August 31st, 2021 Olympic Nation­al Park hike about the prog­no­sis for the Wild Olympics leg­is­la­tion in the Sen­ate (Offi­cial staff photo)

The leg­is­la­tion has already enjoyed a hear­ing before the Sen­ate Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Committee.

A pat­tern of wait-and-hur­ry-up describes action by Con­gress on land con­ser­va­tion mea­sures, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en Repub­li­can hos­til­i­ty toward wilder­ness des­ig­na­tion and species protection.

A must-pass vehi­cle is identified.

Pro­pos­als by a siz­able num­ber of law­mak­ers are then bun­dled togeth­er, so every­body has skin in the game.

Allies are secured.

The late Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Har­ry Reid used wan­ing days of Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol in 2014 to cre­ate a lega­cy pack­age of wilder­ness pro­tec­tion, much of it in Neva­da but also long-pend­ing wilder­ness pro­pos­als in oth­er states.

Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray, D‑Washington, stepped in to tack on expan­sion of our Alpine Lakes Wilder­ness Area, and pro­tec­tion under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for the Mid­dle Fork-Sno­qualmie Riv­er, the clos­est moun­tain val­ley to Cen­tral Puget Sound’s pop­u­la­tion cen­ters of Seat­tle and Bellevue.

A bipar­ti­san duo, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Suzan Del­Bene and Repub­li­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dave Reichert, worked as Sher­pas to assure House passage.

Ultra­con­ser­v­a­tive Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Doc Hast­ings, R‑Washington, who chaired the House Nation­al Resources Com­mit­tee, had blocked Alpine Lakes action for years. But the bill gave Doc some­thing he want­ed, con­tin­ued road access to the top of Rat­tlesnake Moun­tain north of Rich­land. The moun­tain is con­sid­ered sacred by the Yaka­ma Indi­an Nation. The leg­is­la­tion sailed through in wan­ing days of Congress.

If you want to know what’s at stake with Wild Olympics, pause at Lake Quin­ault on your next vis­it to the Penin­su­la. Ridges around the lake will get pro­tec­tion. The near­by 4,492’ Colonel Bob Moun­tain, a bear of a hike, was giv­en pro­tec­tion in the 1984 Wash­ing­ton Wilder­ness Bill.

Preser­va­tion adds up.

More than nine­ty-five per­cent of Olympic Nation­al Park – 876,447 acres to be exact – is pro­tect­ed under the Wilder­ness Act as the Daniel J. Evans Wilder­ness, named for the for­mer Repub­li­can sen­a­tor and gov­er­nor. With Wild Olympics, more than 200,000 acres of nation­al for­est land will enjoy sim­i­lar protection.

It all began more than 113 years ago, when Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt set aside a 450,000-acre Olympic Nation­al Mon­u­ment to stop the slaugh­ter (for log­ging camp food) of the elk herds that now bear his name.

He also des­ig­nat­ed rock for­ma­tions off the coast as nation­al wildlife refuges.

A famous 1937 road trip around the Olympic Penin­su­la by Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt kin­dled FDR’s sup­port for our state’s largest nation­al park.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists had to beat back efforts to excise the Bogachiel Riv­er and oth­er rain­for­est val­leys from the park, a strug­gle recount­ed in Carsten Lien’s book “Olympic Bat­tle­ground.” U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice William O. “Wild Bill” Dou­glas twice led back­packs along the park’s wilder­ness coast­line in a suc­cess­ful effort to block con­struc­tion of a beach­front road.

Wild Olympics was first pro­posed by then-Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Norm Dicks, D‑Washington, before his retire­ment from Con­gress in 2012. The legislation’s guid­ance fell to his suc­ces­sor, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D‑Washington.

U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer
U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Derek Kilmer (Offi­cial portrait)

Although a prod­uct of Prince­ton and Oxford, Kilmer grew up a Port Ange­les boy, with an acute sense of how to win sup­port in a region long sus­tained by log­ging. Kilmer held his own hear­ings and drew up his own leg­is­la­tion, team­ing with Murray.

Along with local greens, Kilmer has done a phe­nom­e­nal job. Wild Olympics has col­lect­ed eight hun­dred endorsers. Major busi­ness play­ers (e.g. Tay­lor Shell­fish), sportsmen’s groups, local may­ors (Port Ange­les, Port Townsend, Ocean Shores) and the Quin­ault, Quileute, Elwha and Jamestown Sk’allam tribes have sup­port­ed the plan.

Attach­ing Wild Olympics to the NDAA required help from an urban law­mak­er. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Adam Smith, D‑Wash., chairs the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, a rare island of col­le­gial­i­ty in a sharply divid­ed Con­gress. Smith deliv­ered, and the autho­riza­tion bill passed on a 329–101 vote.

The state’s wilder­ness bat­tles once wit­nessed line­ups of fume-belch­ing log­ging trucks and coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers decry­ing the “lock­up” of “our resources.” The tim­ber indus­try field­ed front groups (e.g. the “Alpine Lakes Coali­tion”) and paid forestry pro­fes­sors to give wild­ly inflat­ed esti­mates of tim­ber to be “lost.”

As the econ­o­my has changed, and appre­ci­a­tion of wild­lands has grown, the pol­i­tics of preser­va­tion have grown more favorable.

Dan Evans per­suad­ed Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford to sign the 1976 Alpine Lakes bill when Ford’s own agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary was urg­ing a veto.

Ronald Rea­gan signed into law the Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon Wilder­ness bills, and leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ing the Colum­bia Gorge Nation­al Scenic Area.

George W. Bush put his sig­na­ture on a bill to pro­tect the Wild Sky Wilderness.

Such is the love of Olympic wild places that the Penin­su­la has even seen rival hikes. In 2017, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pro­posed open­ing vir­tu­al­ly all of the Out­er-Con­ti­nen­tal Shelf to oil and gas explo­ration. The 2016 Repub­li­can guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Bill Bryant led a protest back­pack hon­or­ing the lega­cy of Theodore Roo­sevelt. Days lat­er, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son led Democ­rats along the beach, rec­og­niz­ing Franklin Roo­sevelt and William O. Douglas.

Our state’s sen­a­tors should get Wild Olympics through, in one form or anoth­er. Both have a track record: Wild Sky was a Mur­ray project, and she leaned on Pres­i­dent Clin­ton to des­ig­nate the Han­ford Reach Nation­al Mon­u­ment. Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, used the 2020 Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act to per­ma­nent­ly autho­rize and fund the Land and Water Con­ser­va­tion Fund, assur­ing fed­er­al dol­lars to acquire crit­i­cal wildlife and recre­ation lands.

As with back­pack trips through Olympic Penin­su­la wilder­ness, it helps when you have as com­pa­ny peo­ple who know what they’re doing.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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