Renewed hope for creation of wilderness plot

WASHINGTON - After five years of trying, Democratic lawmakers say they are confident this is the year Congress will finally approve a Wild Sky Wilderness northeast of Seattle.

The Senate has approved the Wild Sky proposal three times in recent years, but the plan has never come up for a vote on the House floor, largely because of opposition from the Republican chairman of a key House committee. With their party now in charge of Congress, Democrats say there is no reason the bill cannot be approved quickly and signed into law this summer.

Bills sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen and Sen. Patty Murray would designate 106,577 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as wilderness, the government's highest level of protection. The two Democrats say their measure would block development or other economic activity in a sprawling area north of U.S. Highway 2 that includes habitat for bears, bald eagles and other wildlife, as well as streams, hiking trails and other forms of recreation.

"We have a great tradition of preserving the places that make Washington state unique, and the Wild Sky Wilderness bill continues that tradition," Murray said Wednesday. "I'm thrilled that we will finally have a real opportunity to protect this remarkable area. It's the right thing to do for our environment, our economy and future generations."

Larsen called Wild Sky the top priority for wilderness legislation in the House this year.

"It's a new Congress, it's a new chairman (of the House Natural Resources Committee), and we have an opportunity to move forward," Larsen said in a joint conference call with Murray.

"Years of community input have helped us carefully craft this legislation to protect Wild Sky," Larsen added. "Washington families and businesses will benefit from this accessible wilderness for generations to come."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the new chairman of the Natural Resources panel, backed up Larsen's claims.

"Wild Sky is the top wilderness bill priority for the committee," he said in a statement. "I support Rick Larsen's efforts on this most important matter, one that has been held hostage for too long by those who were formerly in power in the House of Representatives."

Rahall was referring to former Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican who single-handedly blocked the Wild Sky bill for several years. Pombo, the former chairman of what was then called the House Resources Committee, said wilderness protection should extend only to lands untouched by humans. He supported a compromise plan that would have protected nearly 93,000 acres as wilderness, while designating 13,300 acres for backcountry management, a less restrictive federal designation that would allow off-road vehicles.

Pombo was defeated in November, in part because of intense spending by environmental groups, who made him their top GOP target in the House.