Alpine lakes: in the hands of a hostile House

By:  Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The U.S. Senate’s passage of Alpine Lakes legislation last week poses a question that may be answered next month:  Is the U.S. House of Representatives so hostile to environmental legislation that it will not pass even a non-controversial bill with a Republican congressman as lead, longtime sponsor?

Starting in 2007, Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., has sponsored legislation that would add the wild Pratt River valley in eastern King County to the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.

It would also protect, using the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River, the closest mountain recreation valley to Puget Sound population centers.  The valley is popular for fishing, car camping, and with hikers headed into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

As hiker-Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has so aptly put it:  “The Alpine Lakes Wilderness offers incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation just 45 minutes from Seattle.  Areas like Alpine Lakes help make Washington state unique, and draw visitors and talented workers to our communities.”

Reichert and Sen. Patty Murray met on a muddy Good Friday in 2010 where the three forks of the Snoqualmie River come together to announce a bipartisan Alpine Lakes-Middle Fork Snoqualmie bill.  Reichert got it through a Democratic-run House, only to have the legislation die without a Senate vote in Congress’ frantic closing days.

Since Republicans took over the House in 2011, however, Reichert hasn’t been able to move the legislation . . . until Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, announced last month that his committee will hold a hearing on Alpine Lakes-Middle Fork.

Hastings is promising a “responsible” process, but made clear he is no friend of wilderness porotection. “Establishing a wilderness is the most restrictive land-use designation Congress can apply to our nation’s lands:  It greatly limits the American public’s access,” Hastings said in a House floor speech.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.: Bipartisan legislation to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and protect the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River, in eastern King County, can't get the time of day in his committee..

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.: Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee:  “Establishing a wilderness is the most restrictive land use designation Congress can apply.”

In fact, access to the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River has improved in recent years.  Volunteers have removed tons of trash from the valley.  Law enforcement has stepped up, with closing of a meth lab.  The U.S. Forest Service service built a large new campground, due largely to efforts of then-Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

The House Natural Resources Committee is a bastion of ultraconservative Republicans.  Reichert is a relative moderate.  He has voted against legislation that would take money away from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and eviscerate the Endangered Species Act.  Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene is cosponsoring the Alpine Lakes legislation with Reichert.

Hastings has shown no bipartisanship toward fellow Washington lawmakers.  He took no action on legislation to create a National Conservation Area in the San Juan Islands.  When President Obama used executive authority to create a San Juan Islands National Monument, Hastings denounced the president.

Sen. Murray has, so far, been gracious.  “I look froward to working with my colleagues in the House to ensure these important protections are finally signed into law,” she said last week.

If the Alpine Lakes-Middle Fork legislation passes Congress, 22,000 acres would be added to the wilderness area, and the river valley would be preserved for recreational use.  It would also create, in eastern King County, a large protected swath of lowland forests and streams.

“The unbroken forests of the Pratt River and Middle Fork will connect directly with adjacent contiguous forests on state lands, which Land Commissioner Peter Goldmark recently protected in the Middle Fork Natural Resource Conservation Area,” said Rick McGuire of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society.

As a result, added McGuire, King County will possess “the largest extent of protected lowland forests in the Cascades.”

“No big city in America, possibly the world, has anything like it.”