Advocates were optimistic Wednesday that a years-long campaign to designate 126,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest as permanent, federally protected wilderness will finally be seriously considered in Congress, thanks to a Democrat-run House.
Democrats took control of the House in January, creating a smoother path for Democrat-backed conservation legislation.
Hundreds of meetings with potentially affected Olympic Peninsula businesses, governments and landowners over the last seven years have resulted in several changes to the original plan that has made it more popular locally, said Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, who represents the area in Congress.
“We’ve really sought to make this a proposal that’s happened with the region as opposed to one that is happening to the region,” said Kilmer, who introduced the latest version of the legislation along with Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat.
The Olympic National Forest currently contains five areas that are specially designated by the federal government as “wilderness.” Over 109 million acres of the U.S. is designated as Wilderness. Man-made development is specifically banned in those areas to preserve the area’s natural form.
The Olympic bill plans to designate thousands more acres of forest and 464 miles of rivers on the Olympic Peninsula as federally protected wilderness.
When the legislation was first introduced in Congress in 2012, some local timber industry leaders saw the idea as potentially damaging to the local economy. They worried that the wilderness protection in certain areas of the forest would leave less land available for logging.
“There were a number of concerns from the timber industry,” said Roy Nott, a local timber industry executive and son of Olympic Peninsula loggers, who spoke before a House National Parks subcommittee on Wednesday. “Over time those concerns have been addressed item by item by item.,” he said.
Kilmer said none of the timber harvesting lands on the Olympic Peninsula will be included in the lands designated as wilderness. To further assuage concerns over timber, Kilmer helped establish the Olympic Forest Collaborative, a group which brings loggers and conservation groups together to responsibly increase timber production on the Olympic Peninsula.
Nott said there are still some constituents who oppose the bill, but he said their numbers are dwindling.
“It’s the generals that are fighting the last war,” Nott said. “There are still people in my community that believe that there is this monolithic group called ‘the environmentalists’ that are the reason that they’ve lost their jobs.”
The American Forest Resource Council, a Northwest timber advocacy group, has long opposed the bill.s. It has argued that increasing regulations have robbed forested communities of valuable timber jobs, and the latest bill will only further restrict land that could be used for resource harvesting.
In a 2018 letter, the American Forest Resource Council wrote that the proposal “has generated tremendous controversy” on the Olympic Peninsula, adding that the proposal “has driven people apart.”
At Wednesday’s House subcommittee meeting, Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher of Idaho submitted the American Forest Resource Council’s 2018 letter opposing the bill.
“There are some members of Congress who aren’t bullish about public lands or the designation of wilderness areas,” Kilmer said. He specifically mentioned a large public land package that passed through the House 363-62 in late February. All 62 no votes were from Republicans.
Kilmer said that because of the bill’s wide-ranging support in his home district, he remained optimistic it could see a vote on the House floor.