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Originally published April 11, 2013 at 4:29 PM | Page modified April 11, 2013 at 4:35 PM

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Guest: The problem with the Wild Olympics plan for Olympic National Forest

The Wild Olympics plan would harm timber jobs, writes guest columnist Bill Driscoll.

Special to The Times

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Several members of our state’s congressional delegation and national environmental groups would like to place 126,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest off-limits. Many do not know that out of the 1.5 million acres of federally owned acreage on the Olympic Peninsula, roughly two-thirds is already wilderness. Just one-third is currently designated as multiuse forests. Wild Olympics proposes shifting 23 percent of the remaining working forests, 126,000 acres, from working forests to wilderness.

Washington Democrat U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s proposal is called Wild Olympics. The counter proposal is often called Working Olympics and the names highlight the differences.

Advocates will immediately tell you that Wild Olympics will not have any impact on current harvest levels and will only modestly harm jobs. While this is technically accurate, it’s also intentionally misleading.

When one uses the false base case of mismanaged lands as the point of comparison it becomes possible to hide the long-term harm Wild Olympics will have on the people of the peninsula.

If a normal harvest (normal being a harvest plan similar to that occurring on state lands under state Commissioner of Lands Peter Goldmark’s supervision) were occurring on those 126,000 acres, designating them as wilderness would, without question, impact jobs.

Today, the management of national forests is dysfunctional and ineffective. Despite the fact that our national forests were established with the express purpose of promoting multiple uses, including timber harvests to support our local communities, harvests have been reduced by roughly 94 percent since 1988. This is well below the standards for sustainable harvests used on state lands and well below levels promised by the federal government.

The impact of this mismanagement is profound. Washington’s timber counties are suffering high unemployment and many people have simply stopped looking for work. Last fall, the unemployment rate was 13 percent in Grays Harbor County and 12 percent in Clallam County, not including those who have stopped looking for work.

I urge those who live in King or Pierce counties not to skip over that number casually: Communities such as Aberdeen, Forks and Port Angeles have been devastated by the loss of timber jobs — and there is no meaningful, short-term employment alternative.

Given that the proposal is driven by environmental interests, it will surprise some readers that not only will Wild Olympics harm jobs but it will also harm the global environment. The Olympic Peninsula is one of the best places on Earth to grow trees.

Shifting this harvest to Asian or South American countries with their relatively poor timber practices and poor labor practices, a likely consequence of this proposal, is a net negative for the global environment and our workers.

Why are people pushing so hard for such a divisive plan? Those pushing the plan have a national agenda to designate more national wilderness areas, which prioritizes wilderness yet again over people’s lives and livelihoods. This designation would reveal the dysfunction within the U.S. Forest Service.

Wild Olympics is an attempt to close these lands before new leaders have the courage to reform our land-management practices.

U.S. Rep Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., refused to take a stand on Wild Olympics during the election. However, he did commit, on numerous occasions, to ensuring that the federal government met the promises made about harvest levels to the district over the past 20 years.

These levels have not been met and must be met prior to the designation of any new wilderness areas. By making this the priority, he could set the table for bipartisan progress and offer meaningful hope to the timber communities in his district.

Kilmer’s commitment to a significant increase in timber harvest from current levels means there is no way he can support passage of the Wild Olympics legislation prior to a fundamental overhaul of the management of his district’s national forest lands.

Bill Driscoll, a Tacoma resident, is an environmentalist who has worked in the forest products industry. He ran unsuccessfully for the 6th Congressional District seat in 2012.

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