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Wild Sky: A wildly popular wilderness

INDEX — Local residents of this Cascade hamlet off U.S. 2 spilled across the lawn by the Skykomish River,  in a festivity that 50 years ago would have been about as likely to happen as watching the sun rise over the Olympics.

They spent Tuesday celebrating the fifth anniversary of the 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness Area, beneath peaks of the wilderness and a nearby forested ridge recently rescued from logging.  They feted Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who fought to make it happen, and took Murray on a hike into forests of the wilderness.

In days gone by, lines of logging trucks…decorated with anti-wilderness placards and with horns blaring would have protested.  Property rights activists would have spun conspiracy theories about the “them” who “want to take our land.”

Signs reading “Forest Service: Kiss my axe” once sprouted in towns like Darrington.  At raucous hearings, silky timber industry PR men glided about, manipulating their unsophisticated charges.

A sea change has come to some gateway towns.

Creation of the wilderness was “probably the most satisfying thing I did in office,” said former Index Mayor Kem Hunter.

The reason can be seen driving the U.S. 2 highway . . . or Interstate 90 as it approaches the nearby Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.

The sprawl of Puget Sound population centers inches ever closer to the Cascades.  The economy has undergone a total transformation, from mill towns to technology.  A growing population appreciates nearby wildlands, the Skykomish River in Snohomish County and the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River in King County.

Sen. Murray has taken up the protection of lowland valleys and salmon spawning streams as places that ordinary people can enjoy.  It’s very different from days of the Glacier Peak Wilderness and North Cascades national parks, whose heartlands belong to hearty backpackers.

Gesturing to a babe in arms and a toddler on the lawn at Outdoor Adventures here, Murray joked:  “I want places that can be enjoyed by this size, and that size.  We are making sure you don’t have to go to the top of a glacier to view a wonderful part of Washington.”

Murray and Larsen are trying to make some final contributions to preservation in the Washington Cascades.

Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have passed in the Senate legislation to protect the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and to put 22,000 additional acres of wild country in eastern King County into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

“We’re waiting to see what happens in the House,” she said.  A wilderness-averse Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, did permit a hearing on the Middle Fork-Alpine Lakes legislation.  But the committee has yet to pass out the bill.

Larsen and newly elected Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., are seeking Wild and Scenic Rivers designation for Illabott Creek — a key salmon spawning tributary of the Skagit River — and protection for the popular lookout atop 6,500 foot Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

At Green Mountain, the lawmakers are actually taking on an extreme fringe of the environmental movement.  A Montana-based group called Wilderness Watch brought suit to have the lookout removed, on grounds the Forest Service violated the law when it rebuilt the 1933-vintage structure.

“I want to thank the 99.99 percent of the conservationists of the Northwest who want to save the Green Mountain Lookout,” Larsen joked on Tuesday.

Wild Sky took five years.  The wilderness legislation sprang loose after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006.  A Republican, President George W. Bush, signed it into law.  (Bush did a salmon restoration event nearby in Monroe during the 2000 presidential campaign.)

Index has been pushing the envelope in years since.

Town residents raised money to buy 120 acres of forested Heybrook Ridge overlooking the town.  The land is now a county park. A trail is being plotted that would connect the town of Index to the popular hiking destination of Heybrook Lookout.

A couple miles west, a successful fundraising campaign — honoring the late climber-philanthropist Stimson Bullitt — has purchased much of the Index Town Wall, where Northwest rock climbers learn and practice their craft.  It is now Washington State Parks property.

The gateways to the Cascades have more friends than ever. Murray defined a strategy going forward:  “Do the right thing, and never give up.”

Article by: Joel Connelly
Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 in the Seattle PI