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Sunday, December 21, 2014



Commentary on the Alpine Lakes Wilderness expansion and other, less attractive aspects of the NDAA public lands riders, in the Cascades and elsewhere

After years of work by NCCC, the Alpine Lakes Protection Society (ALPS) and others, Congress finally passed legislation to add the Pratt River valley to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness on December 12 2014. It was the final stop of a long journey, not without its ups and downs, especially at the very end.

The effort to save the Pratt valley got its start back in the late 1980's when the Forest Service announced plans for a very big timber sale there. The lower parts of the Pratt valley were railroad logged in the 1930's, and have now grown back over the intervening decades into naturally regenerated, diverse forest. That forest has been growing noticeably nicer in the decades since NCCCers started going there. Ever year it looks better than the year before.

View down the Pratt River valley (photo by Harry Romberg)

A certain amount of old growth was left behind in the Pratt valley, mostly on upper slopes that were uneconomic to log during those Depression years. The Forest Service sale in the late 80's proposed to cut old growth above the "bathtub ring," the line where the original logging stopped, where second growth forest below meets old growth above. The second growth has a finer textured appearance than the old growth forest above, though the effect is getting less noticeable over time as the second growth gets bigger and more like the old growth. "Bathtub ring," a term coined by Harvey Manning, describes how these kind of valleys (another is the North Fork Skykomish,) look, since the old growth / second growth line can often extend all the way around a valley. Some of the second growth (below the "bathtub ring,") was targeted for cutting as well.

Volunteer conservationists went into action to save the Pratt as soon as the sale was announced. Len Gardner, later to be president of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, and a longtime NCCC member, was joined by Don DeWitt, a forest lover, and Linda Winter, now a forestry PhD, and by Jim Stevenson, a native of South Carolina who became a defender of northwest forests.

The "Pratt River Coalition" attracted wide support. This was when the timber juggernaut that had deforested so much of the National Forest landscape was beginning to run out of steam. People were upset at what had happened to their National Forests, which had been tremendously overcut. The Pratt sale was scraping the bottom of the barrel, going back in for a second pass at a valley that had already been largely, but not entirely, cleaned out.

A number of approaches were tried in the effort to spare the Pratt. Then-congressman John Miller, representing the 1st congressional district in North Seattle, introduced a bill to designate the Pratt River as Wild & Scenic. After a long controversy, and much publicity, the Forest Service decided to back down. The sale, with its thirteen miles of new road and new road bridge across the Middle Fork Snoqualmie, was cancelled. It could be looked upon as one of the dying gasps of the timber beast that had for so long devoured the National Forests. 

The effort to stop the Pratt sale sparked a realization in the conservation community that not just the Pratt, but the entire Middle Fork Snoqualmie valley, was worth saving. The valley had been allowed to become a sort of "no man's land," effectively taken over by shooters, dumpers, squatters, and general nastiness. A concerted campaign began to consolidate ownership, close off spur roads and clean up the squalid, muddy, garbage strewn messes at the road ends and elsewhere.

The Pratt campaign grew into the Middle Fork campaign, which has enjoyed great success over the years. The valley is now 98% publicly owned, and nearly all of the state DNR land in the lower valley has been protected in Natural Resource Conservation Areas, the state's near-equivalent of Wilderness. Many new trails and facilities are planned or have been built, including a new campground, the first in the Northwest in decades.
Map courtesy of Alpine Lakes Protection Society:

Even though the Forest Service cancelled the big timber sale in the Pratt, there was always a strong desire to permanently protect the valley by adding it to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and prevent any new timber sales. In 2007 the Pratt valley was located in the 8th Congressional district, represented by Congressman Dave Reichert of Auburn. Reichert took an interest in the Pratt and the Middle Fork, and in 2007 he introduced a bill to add the Pratt to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

A couple of years after Reichert's bill was introduced in the House, Senator Patty Murray, fresh from her triumph with Wild Sky, joined Reichert and introduced a companion bill in the Senate, with the addition of Wild & Scenic status for part of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie river.

In taking up the cause of protecting the Pratt, Reichert set himself apart from most Republicans of today, harkening back to an earlier era when Republicans were conservation leaders. Reichert took on the prevailing ideology of his party. He received no help from his fellow Republican Doc Hastings, who was chair of the Resources committee that controlled the bill's fate, until the very end. Reichert deserves credit for keeping at it for over seven years and seeing it through. He also deserves credit for breathing back some of the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt into the Republican party.

Patty Murray also continued her own tradition of taking on conservation efforts and seeing them through, done right. The Wild Sky Wilderness, signed into law in 2008, protected over 100,000 acres, much of it prime lowland forest. It also protected over 25 miles of salmon streams, a first for Wilderness in the Cascades. Protecting the Pratt was a natural follow-on from Wild Sky for her. 

The Pratt bill passed the House, and the bill passed the Senate, but never in the same Congress, until just now. In December 2014 the bill was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, a "must pass" vehicle that was loaded up with all sorts of things that had nothing to do with defense.

Some provisions attached to the NDAA were very bad indeed from a conservation view. A mine in Arizona was fast-tracked for Rio Tinto corporation, over the strenuous objections of Native Americans. 70,000 acres of prime lowland old growth forest in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska was handed over to Sealaska Corporation for liquidation, a terrible blow to that lovely area. Close to home, language was inserted to allow a Wilderness boundary change in order to build a new road ten miles up the upper Stehekin valley. Fortunately, no money was appropriated for what would be a very expensive road to construct, so that battle, at least, is not yet over.

No one asked NCCC, ALPS, nor any other conservation group we know of, whether or not we wanted the Pratt Wilderness included in the NDAA. It was put there without our knowledge, and no one deigned to ask our opinion. NCCC joined a number of other conservation organizations to ask that all public lands provisions be removed from the NDAA, so that their merits could be individually assessed before being passed into law, but to no avail.

Lawmaking has often been compared to sausage making. Both processes can be hard for sensitive individuals. Both can be downright offensive at times. NCCC would have preferred a "no action" alternative, even if that meant not getting the Pratt wilderness additions at this time, but we were not given that choice. Congress makes the laws. It is good to see the Pratt valley finally achieve permanent protection, and very unfortunate to see many other harmful provisions enacted. One the whole, the NDAA rider package was a net loss, and a big one, for conservation and public lands. All we can do is recognize the good parts, and continue to oppose the bad parts, and keep working on the issues like the Stehekin road where there is still hope.


Anonymous said...

This is a very thoughtful, nicely written assessment. I'm glad to hear the Stehekin Road is not a done deal; I repeatedly called and emailed Senators Cantwell and Murray, asking them to oppose that provision, but to no avail.
Aside from the question of funding, would a new upper Stehekin Road require the usual NEPA/public comment process? There's been almost no news coverage of this, so I don't really know exactly what the NDAA specified about the Stehekin Road.

Phil Fenner said...

The NDAA has only a brief mention of the Stehekin road, saying merely that "the Secretary (meaning, in this case, the Interior Secretary, for the Park Service,) "may" adjust the boundary of the Mather Wilderness to construct a road in the Stehekin. Crucially, it does not say "shall." It also does not say "notwithstanding any other provision of law," the usual code words for suspension of NEPA, so presumably there would have to be the normal environmental analysis. As things stand, there is no money for a Stehekin road at a time when there is no money for any number of other roads which are washed out or crumbling in place after place. There is only the provision that the Park Service "may" adjust the Wilderness boundary, when they have no money to build or maintain a road there. Will the Park Service take money away from other struggling units of its system to build a road to nowhere in Stehekin, a road that connects to no other road and which only a handful of vehicles could ever drive on? The more you think about it, the less likely it seems. Stranger things have happened, though. We'll see.