Washington's wilderness expansion: devilish dealing

Our congressional delegation scored several big wins that come at serious cost to the public interest in much of the West.
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Lake Ingalls is a popular destination in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Our congressional delegation scored several big wins that come at serious cost to the public interest in much of the West.

It has an incongruous feel about it, like a diamond pressed in a phonebook.

It's the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act: Title XXX, Subtitle E, Sec. 3060, p.1330 tucked in a 1,648-page doorstop, the Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Act, which President Barack Obama signed Dec. 22.

Rejoice at the 22,173 acres added to Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It took more than seven years of yeoman organizing by the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Washington Wild and independent activists such as Rick McGuire.

But pity the political scientist diagramming the Levin/McKeon goliath. There are dozens of unrelated sections: All-things national security; giveaways to logging and mining interests; conservation for future generations, a la Alpine Lakes; and keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison’s concertina wire in place. Everything was heaped into a catchall bill that no member of Congress had time to thoroughly read in advance.

Alpine Lakes figures as a sweet capstone to the 50th anniversary of the National Wilderness Act, and a testament to the legislative finesse of Sen. Patty Murray and members of Washington’s Congressional delegation, including Reps. Dave Reichert, Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen.

Add to the Northwest’s first new wilderness since Wild Sky in 2009, another section of the bill (Subtitle F, Sec. 3071) assures that Illabot Creek in Skagit County will forever run free. Even Manhattan Project history buffs get their due, thank you very much (Sec. 3039, p. 1245).

The good stuff pop out like passages from John Muir grafted to a Pentagon inventory.

But what about the many not-so-good things, the giveaways and watering down of wilderness study areas? 

One close-to-home example: Washington’s Rattlesnake Mountain, the sacred equivalent of Mount Sinai for the Yakama Nation, will be thrown open to motorized access. No grassroots organizing, just a solitary decision by Eastern Washington’s Doc Hastings. 

Or consider Sec. 3003 p. 1103, handing to the Australia-based Resolution Copper mining company 2,400 acres of National Forest land in Arizona, a swap that garnered zero grassroots support (and voracious opposition by the Apache Nation) but took 10 minutes for Sen. John McCain to insert.

Or Sec. 3002, which provides 70,000 acres of Tongass National Forest to Sealaska’s buzz saw.  Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation, played a pivotal role in its prime advocate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s, 2010 write-in election.

Or Sec. 3023 — one of the most jarring — suspending environmental review for millions of acres of public lands under the National Environmental Policy Act and destroying essential habitat for the sage grouse. (Sage grouse, in fairness, are notoriously cheap political contributors).   

The list of horrors is as varied as the landscape.

These cringe-inducers are either an expression of democracy-as-compromise or what Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein call “the new politics of hostage taking.”

“Congress certainly took an alternative route toward passing the Alpine Lakes additions and designating Illabot Creek as Wild and Scenic,” said Ben Greuel, Washington state director of the Wilderness Society. “Their willingness to take this path is a direct response to the local demand to protect these special places. As with climbing mountains, the lasting reward is the view from the top, regardless of the path you took to get there.” 

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hitched multiple land-use projects to the gotta-pass defense authorization bill, which opened the way for Murray to shepherd Alpine Lakes and Illabot Creek.

It was an unexpected gift for wilderness activists. Last year centered on the anniversary of the Wilderness Act and often arcane debates about wild places and climate change. Here was something tangible. Snooze (or grow too righteous) and you lose.     

The defense act usually is a lightning rod for other reasons, such as permitting indefinite military detention of prisoners without trial.

In the end, Obama sidestepped chatter about land use, good and ill, and focused his complaints instead on the Guantanamo Bay prison (Sections 1032 and 1033): “Individuals from across the political spectrum have recognized that the facility should be closed. But instead of removing unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that curtail the executive branch's options for managing the detainee population, this bill continues them.” 

There was no presidential veto, mind you. Obama weighed his options and held his nose.

“This lands package represents a bipartisan compromise,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell. “While Sen. Cantwell did not support every provision in the bill, she voted for this package because of its overall benefits to public lands in Washington state and around the country.”

Decorating bills with unrelated goodies is something of a Northwest tradition. In 1977, Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson added a “little amendment” to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that put the kibosh on supertankers in Puget Sound, blunting a push for an oil port at Cherry Point and squelching Gov. Dixy Lee Ray’s energy agenda.

So, spoon up the portions you like because the alternative seems equally unpalatable: Heavily supported (and already carefully studied) wilderness and parks bills festering for another decade or more.

Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician from “House of Cards,” would snort over idealistic second-guessing. The Levin/McKeon Act would have passed no matter the hand wringing or pious “no” votes.

In the “Promise of Wilderness,” James Morton Turner’s superb history of the Wilderness Act after its 1964 passage, Turner writes, “Wilderness means more than pristine wild lands, backpacking adventures, or a stronghold for biodiversity; wilderness also means engaging citizens — both for and against wild lands protection — in a sustained discussion toward the public interest.”

That sustained discussion gets circumvented with unvetted giveaways such as Resolution Copper or Sealaska. It’s a steep price that needs to be acknowledged, along with the good.

As Greuel said, “the lasting reward is the view from the top.” Northwesterners are lucky. The rest of the American West, less so.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson