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Wild Olympics — not much middle ground

By Angelo Bruscas
The Daily World

May 11, 2012

Aberdeen, WA – The Wild Olympics proposal to add wilderness designation protection to national forest land around Olympic National Park and put several Olympic Peninsula rivers on the list of “wild and scenic” streams was examined and debated on all sides last night at a spirited town hall meeting sponsored by the mayors of Grays Harbor cities.

Rex Valentine, a lifelong Grays Harbor County resident, speaking against the plan said he was mostly disappointed about the timing of the issue.

“I really don’t think we should go ahead with this in any way. We don’t need it,” said Valentine, one of about two-dozen citizens to comment on the proposal that has galvanized timber communities around the national park. “I think our area can pretty well take care of itself.”

Valentine questioned whether the proposal would result in closed roads to some of the back-country areas and wanted to know what would be done to maintain existing roads.

Commenting in favor of the proposal, Lillian Broadbent of Ocean Shores said she was concerned much of the opposition was based on “past history and not forward looking.”

“I believe this measure will go a long way toward protecting a very precious resource,” Broadbent said.

The first part of the event featured 30-minute presentations from the Wild Olympics campaign and from the group opposed to it, Working Wild Olympics, including state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen. It also included presentations and information by staff members from the offices of Congressman Norm Dicks and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

The Wild Olympics proposal recently was modified when Dicks and Murray dropped a controversial part that could have added 20,000 acres to the Olympic National Park if private landowners were willing to sell to the federal government.

PLAN OUTLINE

Former Grays Harbor County Commissioner Al Carter, now working for the Wild Olympics campaign, first described how recreation and conservation groups have been working to provide more wilderness protections around Olympic National Park for more than two years.

Carter and other proponents insisted the plan already has changed or modified significantly to reflect the concerns they have heard.

“The campaign has worked very hard to address a number of other issues voiced from various stakeholders and resource managers,” Carter said.

“We have been changing this over time after public input,” added Shawn Bills, a staff member for Murray who has worked on the plan.

The plan now contains roughly 130,000 acres of forestland owned by the National Forest Service that abuts the National Park and would be designated as wilderness. It would also declare 23 rivers in and around the park as “wild and scenic.” It was initially developed by environmental groups, but Dicks and Murray have said they will back legislation to make it law, something Bills said should be drafted soon so that everyone will have the chance to review and comment on the proposal that will go before Congress.

Sara Crumb, a district manager for Congressman Dicks, assured the crowd of about 200 people that there would be no impact to existing roads in the area and that there would be no private land taken. She and other supporters also said there would be no impact on existing hunting uses.

“Let me be very clear, there is no park expansion under this legislation,” she said.

As far as the wilderness that will be designated by the proposal, Crumb added, “We are continuing to redraw those lines to fine tune that. It is very important to our bosses to make sure we have minimal impact on timber harvest.”

HARBOR IMPACTS

Bill Pickell a retired logger, forester and 45-year Harbor resident, questioned such assurances even with a modified plan. He noted that the Bishop Center where the forum was held was “built with timber dollars” and that most of the opposition group originated in Grays Harbor County.

“We passionately believe that the proposal … is not beneficial to our community,” he said to loud applause from opponents, many wearing red shirts that read, “Stop Wild Olympics Land Grab.”

Pickell said the proposal “totally ignores the last 20 years of what has happened here on the Harbor” after the federal 1994 Northwest Forest Plan curtailed logging in an attempt to preserve spotted owl habitat. Harvest levels, he said, were cut 95 percent by that decision.

“The spotted owl has been a tremendous disaster for Grays Harbor,” Pickell said. “… We have already given all we can give in this community.”

But Wild Olympics proponents argue the plan would not have a similar negative impact on surrounding communities.

“We think we can do something that protects clean water, healthy fish runs, those important resources, but does not have an impact on jobs,” Crumb said.

She read a letter from Cosmo Speciality Fibers in an effort to show that the plan would not affect the Cosmopolis pulp mill’s fiber supply. The letter noted that the Wild Olympics plan as modified would be on federal land and “our own fiber interests are not affected.”

“Cosmo Speciality Fibers recognizes the efforts made by the Wild Olympics proponents to stand before the community, state their proposal, take the full brunt of feedback and make adjustments,” the letter read. “Too often in the past, environmental actions have simply ignored community concerns. That has not been the case here.”

The Wild Olympics Campaign this week announced the findings of a new economic report commissioned by the group that concluded the draft proposal “would likely have little downside but provide significant upside for the(Olympic) Peninsula’s economy.” But the report by a group known as Headwaters Economics from Bozeman, Mont., also noted that “Grays Harbor in particular has struggled to absorb losses in timber-related industries and develop a robust service economy.”

Overall, the report found the “potential fiscal impact of proposed wilderness would be quite small” and that the entire proposal “will have little or no impact on timber jobs or the overall timber economy of the region.”

Crumb said the state’s congressional delegation sees the Wild Olympics plan as a “complement to a lot of the restoration work that already is going on.”

“Protecting these areas is very important to them,” she said.

Blake, however, called the plan “a bridge to nowhere,” in reference to the now-abandoned federal project to build a bridge over the Tongass Narrows in Alaska, a subject that became a controversial topic in the 2008 presidential election campaign.

“It’s a bridge to nowhere for recreational access, and it’s a bridge to nowhere for the economy of Grays Harbor,” Blake said.

RIVER DESIGNATIONS

One of the biggest issues was how the wild and scenic designation would affect uses on the rivers in the plan, and whether that would extend downriver outside the boundaries of the proposal.

Owen Shaffner who runs Shaffner Farms in the Wynooche River valley, said he was worried the wild and scenic designation would be a stepping stone for the environmental community and the designation could eventually spread and affect his property. Other parts of rivers included in the plan are the upper reaches of the Humptulips, the Satsop, the Quinault, the Queets, Hoh, Skokomish, Bogachiel, Calawah, Sol Duc, Elwha, Graywolf, Dungeness, Dosewallips and Duckabush rivers.

Tom O’Keefe of the Wild Olympics Campaign said there are different designations for either wild or scenic portions of the rivers, and there are provisions for timber harvesting, thinning and other uses, including recreational, hunting and fishing in rivers with just the “scenic” designation as opposed to the more restrictive “wild” designation.

Rivers on the wild and scenic list are qualified under three designations, two of which allow timber harvesting near the streams and one that doesn’t, according to the congressional staffers. Asked for clarification as to which of the three would be applied to the Peninsula rivers, Bills said: “The kinks are still being worked out as to which stretches will be designated as which, but anything outside of the wilderness area will be scenic or recreational.”

Karl Spees of Clallam County echoed a popular sentiment: a distrust of the federal government and the motivation behind the Wild Olympics effort.

“This is not about the environment. I want clean air, land and water. This is about power and control and taking by the government,” Spees said, asking for a show of hands for those for and against the proposal. Far more hands went up against the plan.

But right after the impromptu straw poll, Janet Strong of the McCleary area, said she was supporting the plan as a teacher, biologist and grandmother.

“The Olympic Peninsula, the park and all the surrounding areas is a world heritage area. It’s a treasure,” she said.

Robbie Myers of Westport, said she was confused by the opposition rhetoric that Wild Olympics was a private land takeover, and she asked opponents: “What are you afraid of?” A response from behind her called out, “The government.”

“The government is us,” Myers said. “They are telling us it is not a takeover. If it was a takeover then they would have done it without asking us anything.”

Randy Ross of Aberdeen urged the congressional staffers to “hear the passion that is here tonight and take that back to your respective leaders.”

“This is a little bit of a different climate than when the spotted owl came about,” Ross said. “We actually have a group that has come to us in a public forum to ask for input. That’s almost a first. … Let them know how we feel down here.”

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