Wednesday, February 16, 2005 Last updated 4:40 p.m. PT

Supporters of Wild Sky try again

By MATTHEW DALY
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Supporters of a proposed Wild Sky Wilderness northeast of Seattle cheered Wednesday as a bill advancing the plan again was introduced in the House, and a similar measure cleared a key Senate committee.

But the hard road the legislation faces became clear as the chairman of a key House committee once again said he opposes an effort to designate as wilderness any land that contains logging roads or other marks of human intrusion - a test the Wild Sky measure fails.

Bills sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen and Sen. Patty Murray would designate 106,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as wilderness, the government's highest level of protection. The two Democrats say their measure would block development or other economic activity in a sprawling area north of U.S. 2 that includes habitat for bears, bald eagles and other wildlife, as well as streams, hiking trails and other forms of recreation.

The plan includes 13,000 acres that contain several former logging roads and other marks of human intrusion - marks that House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo says conflict with the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Pombo, R-Calif., withdrew a proposed Wild Sky bill last fall, saying wilderness protection should extend only to lands untouched by humans.

Pombo supported a compromise plan that would have protected nearly 93,000 acres as wilderness, while designating 13,300 acres as a backcountry management area, a less-restrictive federal designation that would allow off-road vehicles.

Larsen and other critics said the election-year plan - put forth by then-Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash. - would have threatened old-growth forests and salmon habitat and left the door open for development. Nethercutt was running against Murray for the Senate at the time he made the proposal.

Larsen, in a statement Wednesday, said he was optimistic that this could be the year for Wild Sky.

"We are restarting the clock on Wild Sky," he said. "We have done the homework and the legwork to create a 'hands on' wilderness proposal that will benefit Washington state families and businesses."

Now, he added, "We have to make it a reality. I will continue working with my colleagues in the House and with Senators Murray and (Maria) Cantwell to bring Wild Sky to life."

Larsen pledged to work with Pombo, as well as members of the Washington congressional delegation and Wild Sky supporters in the state.

A spokesman for Pombo said Wednesday he remains deeply skeptical of the Larsen plan, but is open to working with him and other supporters to bring the bill to a vote in committee.

"The chairman is more than open to working with Rick Larsen and (fellow Democratic Rep.) Jay Inslee on the Wild Sky bill," said Matthew Streit, a Pombo spokesman.

"However, he has the same concerns he had last year with the land included in the bill that does not meet the requirements of the original 1964 Wilderness Act," Streit added.

Inslee, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he was optimistic about its chances, calling the measure "the most carefully crafted wilderness bill in the country."

He and Larsen stressed the broad support the bill enjoys in the state, and said years of negotiation have led to support from groups as diverse as backcountry horsemen and snowmobilers; the Washington Seaplane Pilots Association; local tribes; the Snohomish County Emergency Responders; and the Washington Coalition of Citizens with disAbilities.

The bill is supported by all six Democratic members of the House from Washington. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has not taken a position on the bill. Spokesmen for the state's two newest members of Congress, Republican Reps. Dave Reichert and Cathy McMorris, said Wednesday the lawmakers were still studying the proposal.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Murray's bill cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, setting it up for a vote in the full Senate as soon as next month. The Senate has already approved the bill in two previous sessions of Congress.