By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
The Skykomish River was sparkling last week as it danced with the sun, seeming to join in the festivities.
United States Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Rick Larsen traveled to Index on Tuesday, Aug. 20 to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the creation of the Wild Sky Wilderness Act. Wild Sky was a hard-fought designation which established 106,577 acres located in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as a federal wilderness area. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush on May 8, 2008 and was the first new wilderness area created in Washington State in over 20 years.
Murray and Larsen worked in partnership, championing for the bill for nearly a decade. They were welcomed in Index by over 50 wilderness advocates and local residents, many of whom carried signs thanking them for the Sky Wilderness.
“It seems like just yesterday we were fighting to protect this area, and now here we are celebrating the five-year anniversary,” said Larsen. “Local businesses and government, environmentalists, timber companies, recreational groups and the forest service all agreed that it was important to protect this area. More importantly, all those groups did the work to get to a consensus on what Wild Sky was going to be.”
The Wild Sky Wilderness Area is located North of Index and Skykomish and has three units; the Ragged Ridge unit, which is located Northeast of Reiter Foothills; Eagle Rock, which encompasses a large area that lies North of Money Creek; and West Cady, which is situated Northeast of the Beckler River near Skykomish.
Originally introduced in May of 2002, the bill passed through the Senate three times, only to be stymied by opposition in the House of Representatives.
“There were tough challenges,” said Murray. “There were hurdles. We had to be creative, we had to keep going, we had to learn when to say ‘no, we’re not doing that,’ and we had to convince a lot of people. But at the end of the day, now, five years later, sitting in this gorgeous place, and watching what has been created here… It was worth every moment.”
The bill’s most ardent opposition was from a California Republican who sat as Chairman of the House Resources Committee named Richard Pombo. Pombo was known as a conservative, private property rights advocate.
Pombo thought that if he could bottleneck Wild Sky, he could bottleneck the next 10 public land use bills, explained Duvall resident Mike Town, who worked alongside Murray and Larsen from the beginning, helping to develop the legislation. Town, an instructor in environmental sciences, founded the non-profit organization Friends of Wild Sky.
When Pombo lost his seat in the November 2006 election, Murray and Larsen were ready. They reintroduced the bill to Congress yet again, in February of 2007. It passed the Senate for the fourth time.
As it turned out, the fourth time was a charm. The legislation forged a new trail, passing through the House for the first time in its history. It was a trail that led directly to the president’s desk.
Murray and Larsen worked in concert with multiple organizations to develop Wild Sky and to ensure its support and viability. Changes were made to accommodate state and local snowmobile groups who were concerned about losing riding areas. They worked closely with the Forest Service, Snohomish County, the Seaplane Pilots Association, hunting and fishing groups, along with local businesses, elected officials and wilderness advocates.
“It was not an easy task,” said Murray. “But I feel like I have learned more from Wild Sky about life, and about how you get things done, than anything else I’ve done.”
Murray took the opportunity to enjoy the results of her effort and hiked to the entrance of Wild Sky before her visit in Index. Guided by Mike Town, Murray hiked in from Iron Goat Trailhead, which is located east of Skykomish.
As a federally protected wilderness area, one of the unique characteristics of Wild Sky is accessibility and a high level of lower elevation areas which include some of the best salmon spawning streams in the Cascades. Approximately one-third of Wild Sky is below 3000 feet in elevation.
Approximately 25 miles of salmon streams have been protected within Wild Sky Wilderness.
The area encompasses much old growth timber at both lower and higher elevations. There are currently 67 miles of existing trails associated with the wilderness area. The terrain features everything from rugged mountain peaks, open forests, lakes, streams and flower meadows. The U.S. Forest Service has developed a prioritized plan for over 115 miles of additional trail projects in the wilderness area, and about 60 miles of the planned trails are being considered high-priority.
Wild Sky offers a wide array of recreational activities including; hiking, backpacking, camping, fishing, kayaking, horseback riding, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing and hunting.
Bicycles are not permitted in wilderness areas. Any motorized usage, including snowmobiles, dirt bikes and any other off-road vehicles are prohibited in designated wilderness.
Murray and Larsen took turns addressing the Wild Sky supporters who attended the celebration. Former Index mayor Kem Hunter spoke, as well as the congressional liaison for Suzan DelBene, who is the current representative for the area. DelBene was unable to attend, but extended her appreciation for Wild Sky.
“I’m proud to recognize and applaud the great work of our congressional delegation, Senator Murray and Congressman Larsen, in preserving this area for the future,” wrote DelBene. “Their effort has ensured that this beautiful part of the new First Congressional District can be enjoyed for generations to come.”
With the 2012 redistricting, Congresswoman DelBene became the representative for the Sky Valley area. This area use to fall within District 2, then represented by Congressman Larsen. District 2 now encompasses San Juan and Island Counties, in addition to communities along the I-5 corridor.
Larsen smiled as he told event attendees that being in Index was making him miss his former district.
The event was hosted by the Corson family who own and operate the Outdoor Adventure Center in Index.
For additional information on the Wild Sky Wilderness and access to the wilderness area, please visit: http://tinyurl.com/skyvalleywilderness, or call Outdoor Adventure Center at (425) 883-9039.