Proposed Mount Washington wilderness additions
The Wild Olympics legislation would protect additional parcels near Mount Washington (Photo: Douglas Scott)

The great expe­ri­enc­ing of nature on our Olympic Penin­su­la must be earned, whether slog­ging up the “poopout drag” to Mar­mot Pass or climb­ing lad­ders over head­lands between Pacif­ic Ocean beaches.

It’s like­wise with vision­ary leg­is­la­tion. The Wild Olympics bill, designed to pro­tect 126,500 acres of wilder­ness and put streams under the fed­er­al Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, has been before Con­gress for more than a decade.

The Sen­ate Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Com­mit­tee approved the leg­is­la­tion just before Con­gress’ hol­i­day recess, send­ing it to the Sen­ate floor.

And that’s where it’s like­ly to remain, unless chief spon­sor Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray can nav­i­gate through the tricky cli­mate of an elec­tion year.

Wild Olympics is wild­ly pop­u­lar in these parts, at least when mea­sured against the state’s past wilder­ness bat­tles. It is, in words of House spon­sor Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Derek Kilmer, D‑Washington,“a pro­pos­al that works for folks across the com­mu­ni­ty.” Or hear from ex-Sec­re­tary of State Ralph Munro: “The leg­is­la­tion is a mar­vel of civic involve­ment, com­pro­mise and involvement.”

The pro­pos­al is local­ly craft­ed, but the Olympic Penin­su­la is also get­ting nation­al recog­ni­tion. A mag­a­zine sur­vey recent­ly rat­ed Olympic Nation­al Park tops among America’s “crown jew­els,” cel­e­brat­ed for its size, its com­bi­na­tion of moun­tains and ocean beach­es, and its fabled rain forest.

Hik­ers line up at the back­coun­try per­mit desk at its Port Ange­les vis­i­tor cen­ter. Guests at Lake Quin­ault Lodge wit­ness For­est vis­tas that made Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt a park advo­cate. FDR got around.

“Steady progress each suc­ces­sive Con­gress” said a release from Kilmer, cel­e­brat­ing Sen­ate com­mit­tee approval. The con­gress­man is a prod­uct of Port Ange­les, where school­child­ren in 1937 greet­ed a vis­it­ing Roo­sevelt with a ban­ner advo­cat­ing the nation­al park he would create.

But progress is more uneven than steady. Kilmer pushed Wild Olympics through the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives last year, only to see it die in the Senate.

The process may work in reverse this time around.

What’s the prob­lem? Every Repub­li­can on the Sen­ate com­mit­tee vot­ed against Wild Olympics. Such is the Sen­ate that one mem­ber can hold up even the most pop­u­lar leg­is­la­tion. Wit­ness ultra MAGA Sen­a­tor Tom­my Tuberville, R‑Alabama, block­ing Pen­ta­gon pro­mo­tions for months.

Repub­li­cans in years past have helped pre­serve more than a mil­lion acres of land on the Penin­su­la. Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt used the Antiq­ui­ties Act to cre­ate a nation­al mon­u­ment that was the pre­cur­sor to the nation­al park. He act­ed to head off slaugh­ter of the elk that now bear his name..

As gov­er­nor and Sen­a­tor, Dan Evans was instru­men­tal in get­ting Shi-Shi Beach and Point of Arch­es put in the park, and craft­ing the 1984 Wash­ing­ton Wilder­ness Bill to pro­tect wilder­ness in Olympic Nation­al For­est sur­round­ing the park.
The bill includ­ed moun­tains that make up Seattle’s sun­set skyline.

The Wash­ing­ton con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion used to be a mod­el of bipar­ti­san­ship, ham­mer­ing out com­pro­mis­es on the future of lands. Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford signed leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ing the Alpine Lakes Wilder­ness. Ronald Rea­gan signed the Wash­ing­ton Wilder­ness Bill and leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ing the Colum­bia Gorge Nation­al Scenic Area. George W. Bush signed into law the Wild Sky Wilderness.

In today’s polar­ized cli­mate, how­ev­er, the likes of Evans and Munro — and even the revered Ted­dy Roo­sevelt— get labeled RINOs, or Repub­li­cans in Name Only. Local oppo­si­tion to Wild Olympics is con­fined to tiny pock­ets, such as the south shore of Lake Quin­ault, but ide­ol­o­gy rears its ugly head at the nation­al level.

The leg­is­la­tion has been care­ful­ly craft­ed, by Kilmer, not to cost tim­ber jobs.

Its eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits extend beyond recreation.

It would “per­ma­nent­ly pro­tect some of the health­i­est intact salmon habi­tat left on the Penin­su­la,” said Ron Allen, long­time Jamestown S’Kallam trib­al chair­man, who for­mer­ly head­ed the Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­i­can Indians.

Or lis­ten to Bill Tay­lor, head of Shel­ton-based Tay­lor Shell­fish: “Our oys­ter beds depend on the clean, cold silt-free water that drains off Olympic Nation­al For­est into Hood Canal. Pro­tect­ing these water­sheds allows our indus­try to grow, expand and con­tin­ue to ben­e­fit the econ­o­my and ecol­o­gy of Wash­ing­ton state.”

Years ago, the tim­ber indus­try schemed to get rain forests of the Bogachiel and Calawah Rivers excised from the nation­al park. A Seat­tle writer, Carsten Lien, blew the whis­tle in his book Olympic Battleground.

Oth­er bat­tles were fought to pre­serve the wild­ness of the Penin­su­la. U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice William O. Dou­glas twice led treks along the park’s coastal strip, to pre­serve its wilder­ness char­ac­ter and thwart a pro­posed coastal road. Dur­ing the Trump regime, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son and Repub­li­can guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Bill Bryant (Inslee’s 2016 gen­er­al elec­tion oppo­nent) led beach hikes in oppo­si­tion to off­shore oil drilling.

Nowa­days, how­ev­er, recre­ation is an eco­nom­ic dri­ving force.

“The Wild Olympics bill has tak­en great care to pre­serve and enhance recre­ation­al access to areas it is pro­tect­ing,” said Dan Evans.

The Penin­su­la is also site of a land­mark (or water­borne) envi­ron­men­tal restora­tion effort. Two aged, salmon-block­ing dams have been removed from the Elwha Riv­er, the Peninsula’s great­est stream.

Sev­en­ty miles of spawn­ing habi­tat, almost all of it in the park, have been reopened. Elwha restora­tion found a cham­pi­on in New Jer­sey Sen­a­tor Bill Bradley.

Can Wild Olympics be moved through this Congress?

Don’t bet on it, but there are paths of hope, albeit as steep as the trail into Lake Con­stance (which gains 3,000 ver­ti­cal feet in two miles).

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Kilmer is retir­ing from Congress.

Well-regard­ed, he was able to get non-con­tro­ver­sial bills through the House in a pre­vi­ous peri­od of Repub­li­can con­trol. He has chaired a bipar­ti­san pan­el charged with improv­ing the effi­cien­cy of Con­gress’ operations.

Sen­a­tor Mur­ray is chair of the Sen­ate Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, an ide­al posi­tion from which to engage in end-of-ses­sion horse trading.

Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell helped write the Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act dur­ing a peri­od when the Repub­li­cans con­trolled Con­gress’ upper chamber.

In 2014, Mur­ray per­suad­ed retir­ing, arch-con­ser­v­a­tive Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Doc Hast­ings, chair of the House Nat­ur­al Resources Com­mit­tee, to go along with expan­sion of the Alpine Lakes Wilder­ness and pro­tec­tion of the Mid­dle Fork-Sno­qualmie Riv­er. Doc has a few items of his own that were tucked into an omnibus spend­ing bill. Mur­ray was also able to push through Wild Sky.

Wild Olympics is a wor­thy cause. Vision­ar­ies, notably both Roo­sevelts, have pro­tect­ed the Peninsula’s core moun­tains and wild coasts. It’s time to build on that vision… to pro­tect ancient forests, bring back once-great salmon runs, pre­serve wildlife habi­tat, and allow our species to expe­ri­ence the nat­ur­al world.

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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