A proposal to designate 215,000 acres of new wilderness areas in the Colville National Forest is drawing support from a broad coalition of forest users.
The plan would expand the existing Salmo-Priest Wilderness in Northeast Washington and create new wilderness along the Kettle Crest, protecting six peaks that are each over 7,000 feet tall. The acreage represents some of the most remote, untouched land left in the lower 48 states. It’s home to grizzly bears, lynx and woodland caribou. And it’s an important wildlife migration route that connects the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades, environmentalists say.
In an unusual move, the wilderness proposal doesn’t stop there. The plan also calls for stepping up logging activity on other parts of the Colville National Forest and building new trails for mountain bikers, motorcyclists and ATV riders, who would have to give up some of their existing trails if Congress approves the new wilderness.
Timber industry representatives, ranchers and recreational groups all worked on the plan.
“We’ve been involved in exhaustive discussions over the past four years,” said Tim Coleman, a director for Conservation Northwest. “This is as much about supporting working farms and ranches, jobs in the woods and new recreation opportunities as it is about wilderness.”
With 1.1 million acres, the Colville National Forest has room for all types of users, said Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. By working together, different groups can find appropriate places to harvest timber, graze cattle, ride four-wheelers and still support wilderness for solitude and wildlife habitat, he said.
“If we look at it in terms of abundance, we’ll all get more than we have right now,” Vaagen said. “If we look at it in terms of scarcity, of holding out, we’ll all get less.”
Conservation Northwest is working to gain political support for the wilderness proposal. Ideally, federal legislation would be introduced this fall or next spring, Coleman said. The proposal also includes new “national recreation areas,” which would trigger federal dollars for additional motorized loop trails, mountain bike routes and facilities such as warming huts and restrooms, he said.
But wilderness proposals often take years to win passage. The Wild Sky Wilderness, which protects 106,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, was approved in 2008 after five years of congressional debate.
According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness designations are for forests that have kept their “primeval” character, showing little influence of human activity. Logging and mining are prohibited in wilderness areas, as are chain saws, motor vehicles and mountain bikes. Cattle can remain, but ranchers sometimes have to leave their trucks behind.
The Colville National Forest is currently evaluating whether 240,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas have wilderness potential through a forest plan update.
The collaborative effort that produced the wilderness proposal unveiled Wednesday grew out of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, an 8-year-old effort by the timber industry and environmental groups to find common ground. Through the coalition’s work, environmental groups began supporting timber sales and commercial thinning in the Colville National Forest. In return, they wanted allies for their wilderness proposal.
Vaagen said his company’s two sawmills have benefited from the collaborative effort. The mills employ about 120 people and could hire more workers if the Colville National Forest’s timber sales increased.
The forest sells about 43 million board feet of timber annually.
“The industry wants 80 million board feet, and they are willing to support wilderness,” said Conservation Northwest’s Coleman. In return, environmental groups are willing to support the higher cut rate, which includes thinning dense stands of trees and other forest restoration projects.
“It’s acceptable to us to manage the forest to provide timber jobs,” Coleman said.
Vaagen said he hopes the coalition’s success will help bring other user groups to the negotiating table. Motorized recreation groups were noticeably absent from a press conference about the wilderness proposal. Designating new wilderness remains controversial with many ATV riders in northeast Washington, Vaagen said.
Ranchers have questions, too. John Dawson and his son, Jeff, graze about 400 head of cattle on the Colville National Forest. A portion of their allotment lies within a roadless area that could become part of the Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area.
The father-son team already does a lot of its work by horseback. That lessens the potential impact of a wilderness designation, Dawson said. But other local ranchers may need continued motorized access to check their herds or get work done on their federal grazing allotments, he said.
At the same time, Dawson said he and other ranchers support wilderness values.
“We like the solitude and quietness of nonroaded areas,” he said.