Cantwell Helps Secure Key Committee Passage of Alpine Lakes Wilderness Expansion Bill

Bill would expand access to pristine wilderness enjoyed by millions of Washingtonians, supporting local economy, quality of life in Pacific NW Important bill to protect Northwest Washington’s Illabot Creek also clears key committee hurdle

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) helped secure key committee passage of legislation to preserve 22,000 acres of wilderness at Snoqualmie Pass, supporting the local economy and the rich quality of life in the Pacific Northwest. Cantwell is a member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee and a cosponsor of the legislation, which next goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Cantwell introduced the bipartisan legislation in February in the Senate and Congressman Dave Reichert introduced companion legislation in the House. The House version is cosponsored by Congressmen Jay Inslee, Jim McDermott, Adam Smith, and Norm Dicks.

“Wilderness areas are important to Washington state’s quality of life and our economy,” Cantwell said. “Just 45 minutes from Seattle, Alpine Lakes is a tremendous resource for our region. It’s also a part of the rich quality of life that allows us to compete for the best talent in the country. Preserving wilderness is critical to ensuring clean water supply and protecting wildlife, and it enhances recreational opportunities and contributes to the local economy. Today’s action brings us one step closer to preserving wilderness for our own and future generations.”

The bill, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act (S. 322), would add approximately 22,000 acres of new wilderness to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at Snoqualmie Pass. This addition would provide protection for low-elevation forests and designate two rivers – the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie rivers – as part of the Wild and Scenic River System. The bill is the result of extensive discussion and collaboration with the local community and a wide range of interested stakeholders, including outdoor recreation groups; local businesses; hunters, anglers and conservation organizations; local and state elected officials; and religious leaders.

On May 18, 2011, during an ENR Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests hearing, Cantwell encouraged committee support for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness expansion legislation. Click here to watch a video of Cantwell’s remarks during that hearing.

Unlike the higher-elevation lands currently in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the lower-elevation lands proposed for designation are snow-free much of the year, providing important wildlife habitat when the high country is covered in snow. Designated by Congress in 1976, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness has become one of the most visited wilderness areas in the nation, with the Forest Service estimating more than 100,000 visits annually. It is one of the closest blocks of wild forests to an urban center in the country and provides diverse recreational opportunities.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Cantwell has been a key backer of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness expansion legislation over the years. In March 2009, Senator Murray introduced the legislation and Cantwell joined as an original co-sponsor. In a statement to the Public Lands and Forest Subcommittee in October 2009, Cantwell expressed her strong support for the bill and helped pass it out of the ENR committee in December 2009. The legislation was the only wilderness bill to be reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and passed by the House of Representatives in the 111th Congress. The bill was reintroduced in February 2011.

The ENR Committee also unanimously approved Senate bill 888, a Murray-Cantwell bill to amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to designate a 14.3 mile segment of Illabot Creek as a Wild and Scenic River. Illabot Creek provides crucial spawning habitat for the wild Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout, and is home to numerous other species including bald eagles that roost along the creek. According to The Nature Conservancy, the abundance of salmon and the high quality of habitat found in Illabot Creek make the Skagit River watershed one of the largest concentrations of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states. 

“Flowing from Snow King Mountain in the Cascades, Illabot Creek is a key Skagit River tributary that is critically important habitat for two of the Northwest’s beloved icons – salmon and eagles,” said Cantwell. “Illabot is a much loved and used river. It is a recreation destination for many hunters and fishermen. And its pristine views bring many hikers out to enjoy its inspiring, unspoiled natural habitat.”

The U.S. Forest Service first recommended Congress designate Illabot Creek as a Wild and Scenic River in 1990. In a hearing last July, the Forest Service affirmed its support, saying, “We strongly support the legislation,” and, “Illabot Creek provides exceptional spawning and rearing habitat for summer and fall Chinook, coho, chum and pink salmon; native steelhead; and, one of the largest populations of bull trout in the Skagit River watershed.” This bill enjoys nearly universal support from regional stakeholders including the Skagit County Commissioners, the Western Washington Agriculture Association, Fidalgo Fly Fishers, Seattle City Light, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and many conservation and recreational fishing and paddling groups.