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Wild Sky Refuge Faces Long Odds

A bill to protect the area in Washington state is stalled in Congress. Logging would be barred but recreation could continue.

March 14, 2004|Matthew Daly | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Is this the year for Wild Sky? After a two-year battle, backers are pinning their hopes on retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) to create Wild Sky Wilderness, the first new wilderness area in Washington state since 1984.

Despite Dunn's strong Bush administration connections, the plan faces long odds. The proposed wilderness area, 106,000 acres in the Cascade Range northeast of Seattle, would permanently protect bears, bald eagles and other wildlife in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, plus promote clean water and such activities as fishing, hiking and rafting.

Republican leaders of the House Resources Committee, where the bill is stalled, are skeptical at best. The panel's cowboy-hat wearing chairman, Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), a cattle rancher and strong advocate of private property rights, calls wilderness designation an extreme measure that would halt virtually all logging or road building and severely limit economic activity.

Critics in Washington state, meanwhile, call the proposal unnecessary and even destructive. Much of the area targeted for protection is not even wilderness, they say, including 16,000 acres formerly used for logging and other commercial purposes.

The Senate, spurred by Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, passed the bill in 2002 and again last fall, but it has not come up for a vote in the full House.

Supporters now count on Dunn, the state's senior Republican, to help chief sponsor Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) get it through the GOP-controlled House. Dunn, who is going to retire after six terms, is close to House leaders and is a prodigious fundraiser for President Bush and other Republicans.

Environmentalists say Dunn, of suburban Bellevue, has a chance to build an environmental legacy through Wild Sky and an unrelated bill authorizing tax-exempt bonds to promote forest conservation. She also is backing a plan to expand the boundaries of Mt. Rainier National Park.

Dunn says the environmental bills are among her top priorities, but dismisses any interest in a legacy. "I'm not that legacy-oriented," she said. "I like to get things done. I'm a doer. I'd like to bring completion to some of these things we've worked so hard on."

Opposition from her own leadership is her biggest obstacle, Dunn said. "I am telling [GOP leaders] how important it is to a lot of us," she said. "I believe it is part of our values system here in Washington state."

Although wilderness status would block logging, road building and motorized vehicles, it would have no effect on recreational activities now allowed -- including fishing and hunting, Dunn and other supporters say.

Dunn said her arguments would be stronger if her two fellow House Republicans from Washington, Reps. George R. Nethercutt Jr. and Doc Hastings, endorsed the bill. Both have remained neutral.

Election-year politics complicate the picture.

Although Dunn has been an enthusiastic backer, some Republicans grumble that passage of the bill would primarily boost Democrat Murray, who has championed the measure in the Senate.

Nethercutt, Murray's likely GOP opponent in this fall's Senate race, is rightly reluctant to hand her a legislative victory, some Republicans say.

A Nethercutt spokeswoman denied that and said the Spokane congressman will take a position on Wild Sky. For now, he is still studying the issue.

Murray spokeswoman Alex Glass said it would be unfortunate if partisan politics blocked Wild Sky -- even as she acknowledged its potential as a campaign issue.

"I think Sen. Murray's record on the environment is unmatched. It's a place where people can definitely look at the differences" between the two candidates, Glass said.

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