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Friday, April 11, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wild Sky Wilderness Area plan appears closer to approval than ever

Seattle Times staff reporter

After nearly nine years of work and four tries, the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness Area seems finally headed for approval, designating the first major new wilderness in Washington in a generation.

A bill containing the wilderness area passed on a 91-4 vote in the U.S. Senate on Thursday and is headed to virtually certain passage in the House as soon as next week. The president is expected to sign it.

Wild Sky has been a dream for so many, for so long, that U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and the bill's original sponsor in the Senate, was still a little gun-shy in a news conference Thursday announcing the bill's passage for the fourth time in the Senate.

"I am not uncorking the champagne until this is signed into law, but I don't have any indications there will be any challenges," Murray said. "I'm thrilled we are so close to victory."

The wilderness area was included in a massive bill that combined 62 separate proposals related to public lands from coast to coast.

Unlike the usual rock-and-ice wilderness areas too high in elevation to be enjoyed much of the year, and too far away to visit without at least a three-day weekend, Wild Sky is likely to become a family friend for many Puget Sound residents.

That's because the area covers more than 106,000 acres in east Snohomish County, including rare, low-elevation old-growth forests and 25 miles of salmon streams, all within an easy drive of more than 2.4 million people in King, Snohomish and Skagit counties.

"This is a great day for Washington," said Jennifer Stephens, communications director for The Wilderness Society in Seattle. "The Wild Sky is a very spectacular place that is so close to Seattle and so many people, and that is the reason so many of us live here, is because of the beauty and recreational opportunity of these wonderful wild places.

"It has amazing giant trees, beautiful alpine meadows, spectacular mountains, rushing salmon streams, some of the best scenic beauty Washington has to offer."

The wilderness-area proposal was endorsed in more than 50 editorials and had the support of hundreds of public officials and business owners.

For all that, the bill to designate the wilderness area, which is within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, had to survive more than its share of peril along the way.

Local opponents have said at least 13,000 acres of the proposed area have been heavily altered by human use, disqualifying it from being considered wilderness. And they argued the designation would keep many outdoor enthusiasts from four-wheeling or driving to camping areas.

The bill was bottled up in the House by California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, dubbed an "eco-thug" by critics for some for his environmental sensibilities. He was voted out of office in 2006.

After finally passing the House last year, the bill got crosswise in the Senate over a debate about allowing guns in national parks. But this became the week for victory after Murray, working with colleagues across the aisle, secured the votes for passage.

Murray had pushed the bill through the Senate three times before.

Now going back to the House one more time, the measure is expected to get a quick vote on a so-called consent calendar.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D- Lake Stevens, who first introduced the bill with Murray in 2002, agreed passage in the House is expected, and soon.

The wilderness area includes a 14,000-acre swath of grand old forests, with some trees 6 to 8 feet in diameter, more than 20 stories tall, and more than three centuries old.

The North Fork of the Skykomish River, with some of the best salmon and steelhead habitat in the Puget Sound basin, tumbles through the heart of the wilderness area.

Northern spotted owls, black bears, mountain goats, cougars and a guidebook's worth of bird species all call the area home.

Tom Uniack, conservation director of the Washington Wilderness Coalition, said the bill represents one of the best conservation opportunities in Washington in two decades.

While 94 percent of the state's public wilderness areas are at elevations above 3,000 feet, Wild Sky will provide multiseason recreation close to home, Uniack said.

"Hunt, hike, fish, backpack, climb, ski — the heart and soul of Wild Sky is all those things."

Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story. Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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