Wild Olympics plan modified

Congressman Norm Dicks and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray are dropping a controversial part of the Wild Olympics proposal that would have added 20,000 acres to Olympic National Park if private landowners were willing to sell to the federal government.

George Behan, spokesman for Congressman Dicks, said that the proposal was running into too many road blocks and by dropping that aspect of their “Path Forward on Olympic Watersheds Protection Proposal” it will generate more support.

Recreation and conservation groups have been working on a proposal known as the Wild Olympics Campaign to provide more wilderness protections around Olympic National Park for more than two years now.

The plan still contains roughly 130,000 acres of forestland owned by the National Forest Service that abuts the National Park and would be designated as wilderness. It would also declare 23 rivers in and around the park as “Wild and Scenic.” It was initially developed by environmental groups, but Dicks and Murray have said they will back legislation to make it law.

“The private piece of this was the biggest problem area and both Sen. Murray and Norm have agreed with others to remove that portion from the proposed bill,” Behan said this morning. “That would mean no impact on private land, leaving the remaining wilderness designation on the wilderness as the remaining piece of the proposal.”

Behan said that final legislation has not been drafted, but they may be weeks away from introducing a bill. Behan said it will be important to gauge public reaction to the remaining parts of the proposal and says a public meeting next week will be a key forum to hear from the public on the issue.

That meeting is being organized by the mayors of Grays Harbor. The meeting is slated for 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, May 10, at the Bishop Center at Grays Harbor College.The proponents and opponents of the issue will each be given 30 minutes to talk about their side and present supporting data. Congressional staff will also be given 30 minutes.The presentations will be followed by a 10-minute break and conclude with a Q&A, where anyone can ask questions.

“It appears that this decision would improve the level of support in the community and public,” Behan said. “We will get an assessment of that over the next several weeks, including the public meeting, that will determine the timing and introduction of any final language. It’s close.”

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, has opposed the Wild Olympics efforts from the start.

“I think this is good news,” Blake said this morning. “And I’m hopeful we can continue to focus on a more inclusive process, but I’m still opposed to the plan. The last maps I saw from congressional staff still includes tens of thousands of acres of industrial-style plantations and I don’t think those are appropriately called wilderness or wild and scenic. With 14.2 percent unemployment in Grays Harbor, we need to be putting our people to work on to those lands doing variable density thinning and habitat restoration rather than lock those lands up.”

Sara Crumb, a district manager for Congressman Dicks, announced the change to the plan at a Grays Harbor Democrats meeting Thursday night. The news was first reported by radio station KBKW, which also posted audio from the meeting on its website.

“We’ve taken the whole park piece off and now it’s off the table,” Crumb told the audience. “This has no impact on private landowners now. It’s changing designations on already federal land … Our proposal doesn’t impact any roads. Period. We have listened very carefully to those concerns and that’s what led to these changes.”

Timber company Green Crow had been among the most vocal against the “willing seller, willing buyer” proposal because some of their land would have been given that designation against the company’s wishes. There were numerous questions that still remained unanswered surrounding the willing seller, willing buyer process. For instance, would a company like Green Crow have to undergo additional environmental review if they suddenly found their land next door to a national park?

Several tribes also had questions on access to their traditional hunting grounds, Crumb said.

Behan said that potential legislation still remains important for Congressman Dicks, who will retire at the end of this year.

“We’re in a consulting stage with all of the parties, but we’re optimistic,” Behan said. “We’re close to getting the final language for a bill ready. The additional protection particularly for watershed areas for the waters and streams could be significant and improve habitat for wildlife. So we do think there’s reason to go ahead.”