Bipartisan drive to protect King County wild places

Source: Seattle PI

Seattle PI - Joel Connelly

A bill  to protect two pristine rivers and mountain wild lands, less than an hour’s drive from Seattle in eastern King County, was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate on Thursday by four members of Washington’s congressional delegation,  from both political parties.

The sponsors include Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and newly elected Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene, who ran against each other in a 2010 House race.  Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are sponsoring the Senate bill.

The legislation would expand the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area to include 21,000 acres of the Pratt River valley, east of North Bend, and protect the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie rivers under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“Just 45 minutes from Seattle, Alpine Lakes is a tremendous resource for our region:  It’s also part of the rich quality of life that allows us to compete for the best talent in the country,” said Cantwell, who has repeatedly won approval for the legislation in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Reichert, who has championed the legislation for seven years, added:  “An expanded Alpine Lakes Wilderness builds on Washington’s strong bipartisan tradition of protecting our previous resources and preserving recreational opportunities.”

The legislation has come within a whisker of passage.

Republican Reichert steered it through a Democratic-run House of Representatives in 2010.  But while unanimously passed in committee, the bill could not find a place on the Senate’s clogged calendar after the mid-term elections.

To tout the bill’s bipartisan support, Murray and Reichert trudged down a muddy trail to where the three forks of the Snoqualmie River come together.  The legislation easily cleared the Senate Energy Committee in 2011.  But the bill did not make it out of the House Natural Resources Committee, even though that committee is chaired by an Eastern Washington Republican, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings.

Hastings has rarely met a piece of federal land that he did not want to log, mine, drill or dam.  He has shown no regard for the “strong bipartisan tradition” cited by Reichert.

In years past, cross-party cooperation has given Washington the North Cascades National Park, the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.  (Ronald Reagan signed the Gorge and St. Helens legislation into law.)

The Middle Fork is a mountain environment rescued in recent years.  In the late 1990′s, it threatened to become an alpine slum, with appliances and car hulks dumped alongside a rough road.  A Russian gang operated a chop shop beneath Russian Butte.  A flourishing meth lab was discovered and shut down, only to require a million-dollar cleanup.

In one of his last acts in the Senate, Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., secured money to construct a large campground in the valley.  Citizen volunteers, organized by the Apline Lakes Protection Society, hauled out tons of garbage.  The river, with deep green pools, is ideal for family-oriented outdoor recreation.

“If this bill passes, it will be nice to see the great big wonderful — and all too rare — unbroken carpet of mature second-growth trees and old-growth forest of the Pratt River finally safe,” said Rick McGuire of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, one of the people who helped clean up the valley.

The Snoqualmie Valley is now split between two congressional districts.  The area south of the Snoqualmie River is in Reichert’s 8th District, north of the river is part of DelBene’s 1st District.

“I’m honored to joint Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell and Congressman Reichert in their bipartisan efforts to expand and protect these critically important wild lands:  The proposed expansion would further protect critical fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and some of the best outdoor recreational areas in the country,” said DelBene.

The 393,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a “land of 600 lakes” between Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes, is one of the most popular backcountry recreation lands in the United States.