The great experiencing of nature on our Olympic Peninsula must be earned, whether slogging up the “poop-out 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 Sen. 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 Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.,“a proposal that works for folks across the community.” Ex-Secretary of State Ralph Munro says: “The legislation is a marvel of civic involvement and compromise.”
The proposal is crafted by local residents; however, the Olympic Peninsula is nowadays 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, as well as 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 needed a wheelchair, but he got around.
“Steady progress each successive Congress” proclaimed a release from Rep. 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 so far this progress is more uneven than steady. Kilmer pushed Wild Olympics through the House of Representatives last year, only to see it succumb 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 Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, blocking Pentagon promotions for months.
Republicans in years past have helped preserve more than 1 million acres of land on the Peninsula. President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to create a national monument that was precursor to the national park, as he acted to head off slaughter of the elk that now bear his name.
Dan Evans was introduced to hiking as a Boy Scout at Camp Parsons on Hood Canal. He manifested his love for the Olympic Peninsula as governor and senator. 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 public 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 — hell, even Theodore 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. Sadly, however, ideology rears an 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. “Wild Bill” sought, successfully, to preserve its wilderness character and thwart a proposed coastal road. During the Trump Administration, Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant each led beach hikes in opposition to offshore oil drilling.
Recreation has become an economic driving force on the Peninsula. “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 the 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 was championed not only by the Washington delegation, but pushed by the likes of New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Ohio’s GOP Rep. (later Governor) John Kasich.
Can Wild Olympics be moved through this Congress? Don’t bet on it, but there are some signs of hope, albeit as steep as the trail into Lake Constance (which gains 3,000 vertical feet in two miles).
Rep. Kilmer, who is retiring from Congress, is well-regarded, and he was able to get non-controversial bills through the House in a previous period of Republican control. He has also chaired a bipartisan panel charged with improving the Congressional operations.
Sen. Murray is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, an ideal position from which to engage in end-of-session horse trading. Sen. Maria Cantwell helped write the Great American Outdoors Act during a period when the GOP controlled Congress’ upper chamber.
Sen. Murray has shown a knack for end-of-session legislating. In 2014, she persuaded retiring, arch-conservative Rep. 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. Hastings wanted items of his own tucked into an omnibus spending bill. Murray was likewise able to push through Wild Sky.
Wild Olympics is a worthy cause. Visionaries, notably both Roosevelts, helped protect the Peninsula’s core mountains and wild coasts. That many-generations’ vision: to protect ancient forests, bring back once-great salmon runs, preserve wildlife habitat, and allow our species to experience the natural world.
A version of this article first appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “The Advocate.”