Editor’s note: This article was updated Dec. 13, 2019, to reflect a recent House Natural Resources Committee vote.
The northwest corner of Washington state is renowned for its free-flowing rivers, ancient rainforests, and stunning scenery—attributes that extend well beyond Olympic National Park. Now Congress has a chance to give the nation’s highest level of conservation status to more of this area: The reintroduced Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (S. 1382/H.R. 2642), which the House Natural Resources Committee approved on Dec. 5, would designate 19 rivers and their major tributaries as wild and scenic, and safeguard 126,000 acres of Olympic National Forest as wilderness.
Here are five reasons Congress should pass the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and five stakeholders who support these efforts:
1. Safeguard clean water
The 19 Olympic Peninsula rivers and their major tributaries are home to some of the most robust runs of wild salmon and steelhead in the Northwest. These waters are also the lifeblood of Puget Sound, and provide clean drinking water to local communities, such as Sequim and Port Townsend. The ancient forests proposed for wilderness protection—such as South Quinault Ridge, Buckhorn Wilderness Additions, and Wonder Mountain Wilderness Additions—protect key upstream watersheds that feed the rivers and tributaries.
For example, the Dungeness River, below, flows through a mossy forest along its journey to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Wild Olympics legislation would permanently protect the Dungeness as a Wild and Scenic River.
2. Permanently protect ancient forests
Much of the Olympic Peninsula’s old-growth forests are not permanently safeguarded from logging or development such as road building, but the legislation would fix that by forever conserving some of the most majestic ancient temperate rainforest in the U.S., including South Quinault Ridge. Because logging is already prohibited in these areas under U.S. Forest Service rules, no timber jobs would be lost under the legislation.
3. Help ensure a bright economic future
Outdoor recreation in Washington, including in the Wild Olympics—from hiking, camping, and kayaking to hunting and fishing—generates $26.2 billion in consumer spending annually and supports 201,000 jobs. Roughly 550 area businesses support the legislation, including fishing and shellfish industries, outdoor recreation companies, farms, and others.
Below, hikers take in the view on Mount Ellinor in the proposed Mount Skokomish Wilderness Additions.
4. Preserve critical fish and wildlife habitat
The Wild Olympics are home to a diverse array of wildlife, including black-tailed deer, cougar, Roosevelt elk, and black bear. Additionally, the clean waters provide habitat for three species of salmon (pink, coho, and chinook) and four species of trout (steelhead, cutthroat, rainbow, and Dolly Varden). These streams and rivers are vital to the health and restoration of Puget Sound, and draw thousands of recreational fishermen each year.
5. Recognize strong local support
For nearly a decade, local stakeholders have been working to find common ground to protect the Wild Olympics. An inclusive and collaborative public process to craft the proposal has led to the support of more than 800 Olympic Peninsula and Hood Canal-area business owners; tribes; elected officials; sportsmen, conservation, and outdoor recreation groups; and farms, civic organizations, and religious leaders. This includes more than 30 leading hunting and fishing organizations, and local guides who have endorsed the legislation.
One of the reasons for the broad local support is the protection of outdoor recreation access to magnificent places such as the Sol Duc Falls, below, on the Sol Duc River. The legislation would designate more than 40 miles of this river as wild and scenic.
John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.