Washington Wilderness
9:38 am
Thu July 31, 2014

Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area Expansion Bill Clears Key Committee In Congress

A bill that would expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area east of Seattle is one step closer to becoming law. For the first time in nearly four years, the proposal has moved forward in the U.S. House.  

The legislation, called the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act (H.R. 361), has now passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee. Aside from a brief hearing last year, it had languished there since its introduction in the House in January 2013.

The bill aims to add 22,000 acres of what is now National Forest land to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, north of Interstate 90. The wilderness area spans nearly 400,000 acres located roughly between Stevens Pass to the north and Snoqualmie Pass and I-90 to the south.

Tom Uniack, with the conservation group Washington Wild, says the legislation simply moves the wilderness boundary down the hill to add protections to lower elevations.

“These are where the old-growth trees and the mature trees are, it’s also where fish habitat and spawning streams are. And it’s where we find multi-season accessible recreation opportunities for families,” Uniack said.  

The legislation also includes designation of two wild and scenic river corridors in the area: along a 27-mile segment of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and the 10-mile Pratt River. The bill would keep them free-flowing and require active management to protect their value.

Wilderness is the toughest form of protection for public lands. If the new designation is approved, camping and hiking would be still be allowed in the national forest areas, but logging, new mining claims and use of motorized equipment would not be allowed. Even mechanized equipment, including mountain bikes, would be prohibited.

But Uniak says Washington’s congressional delegation worked for five years, reaching out to potentially affected groups before the bill’s introduction and addressing their concerns. For example, he says the boundaries steer clear of an important mountain biking trail bordering on the wilderness and doesn’t touch operations of the nearby Alpenthal ski area. They also worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation to make sure they would be able to conduct avalanche control blasting to maintain I-90. 

The Alpine Lakes expansion idea was first proposed in 2007 by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., who has continued to push it forward. The latest bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Suzan Delbene, D-Wash. Legislation identical to their proposal passed the full Senate after introduction there by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. 

But the bill coming out of the House Committee on Wednesday included amendments that conservation groups called “unnecessary and problematic,” including a boundary adjustment that would subtract about a thousand acres from the new protections.

They also say a move to get rid of a quarter-mile buffer around the river areas could be a deal breaker, because it would significantly weaken the designation.

The amendments are designed to provide assurances for private property owners near the rivers.  

Those differences may determine whether the Alpine Lakes Wilderness expansion soon becomes law. No action is expected before Congress completes its August recess.