Wild Olympics proposal is revived

2014-01-23 Ashley Bach

Wild Olympics is back.

The proposal to make 126,000 acres of Olympic National Forest off-limits to logging and also name 19 rivers and seven tributaries as wild and scenic is up for consideration again in Congress. This new version, sponsored by new U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer and veteran U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, was introduced on Friday and is pretty much the same proposal that didn't go anywhere after being introduced in 2012.

The difference this time around is the presence of Kilmer, who replaced outgoing Rep. Norm Dicks in the 6th Congressional District last year. (Dicks and Murray were the sponsors of the 2012 legislation.) Also, this year's bill has some small changes that Kilmer said he added to placate timber interests, such as less loggable land being tapped as wilderness. 

For many timber leaders, though, the legislation is essentially the same bill they opposed the first time around.

“The reality is we have a lot of land that is protected,” says Carol Johnson, executive director of the North Olympic Timber Action Committee. The group opposes further restriction on logging on the peninsula. “What we find is that over the last 50 years there are a lot of layers of rules or regulations that are put upon our resource industry and it starts to put real strains on the economy."

In addition to interviewing Johnson, KUOW Radio in Seattle also visited some timber owners on the Olympic Peninsula to ask them about the Wild Olympics proposal.

The Bekkevars are one of those working families. Trisha Bekkevar wears a Carhartt vest. Her auburn hair is pinned neatly away from her face, flowing down her back. She’s lived on Bekkevar Farm for 32 years but her husband Dave’s family settled here back in 1910. He’s the third generation of Bekkevars who have farmed these hundred-or-so acres east of Port Angeles.

“We’re stewards of the lands and stewards of the forest,” says Trisha Bekkevar.

The Bekkevars also run a family logging business. They see the Wild Olympics campaign as a government “land grab” that will make life even harder for loggers.

“It’s all about government control,” Bekkevar says. “It’s the federal government and Patty Murray and people in the cities trying to control the people that are in rural areas out here. They’re just squashing everything.”

Also intriguing is Kilmer had pointedly not taken a position on Wild Olympics during his campaign for Dicks' seat in 2012. Then last month Kilmer created the Olympic Peninsula Collaborative, a group of timber and environmental interests, along with local, state and federal leaders. The collaborative, according to the Associated Press, is designed to "look for ways to increase timber harvests and provide economic benefits to communities through restoration thinning and other timber treatment while also improving forest habitats and environmental conditions."

Could Kilmer's sponsorship of the new Wild Olympics proposal, just a few weeks after the creation of the collaborative, threaten the spirit of the collaborative? At the very least, it could make things awkward. Several timber groups, including the American Forest Resource Council, Merrill & Ring and Simpson Lumber Co., signed on to the new coalition in December.

One of those groups, the American Forest Resource Council, has already come out in opposition to Kilmer's new Wild Olympics plan.

AFRC President Tom Partin issued a statement, saying in part:

"Our industry remains opposed to the Wild Olympics Wilderness legislation because it would put an additional 125,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest off-limits to responsible timber management and other activities. Most importantly it fails to address the pressing social and economic needs of rural, forested communities on the Peninsula. Over 100,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest is already designated as Wilderness and is off-limits to responsible, multiple-use management, as is nearly one million acres within the Olympic National Park.”

Partin did leave the door open to work with Kilmer on future proposals, which would seem to offer hope that the new collaborative could still be successful.

Notwithstanding these concerns, we are encouraged by the recent efforts of Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) to begin developing proposals for increasing timber harvests on the Olympic National Forest. Ultimately, we believe the adoption of timber management reforms should precede or be included with any Wilderness legislation dealing with the future of these federal lands. While we must continue to oppose this stand-alone ‘Wild Olympics’ Wilderness proposal, we would like to continue working with Congressman Kilmer to craft balanced, sustainable approaches for our forests and communities and would also welcome the involvement of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in this effort."