by Dan Richardson

The idea's been around for years: Convince Congress to give federal wilderness protection to the Kettle River Range, an archipelago of mountains west of Colville.

The idea has waxed and waned. It lost out the last time Congress designated wilderness land in Washington (the Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area, bordering Idaho and Canada, in 1984), but now it's back on the front burner as part of a new campaign by environmental groups to protect wild lands in Washington.

Called the Wild Washington Campaign, the effort is statewide. An impressive collection of green activists hail from Eastern Washington and have organized to win five federal wilderness areas on the dry side of the Cascades, including the Kettle Range.

"We have some absolutely amazing wild forests and streams here in the Fifth Congressional District of Washington that have no permanent protection now," says Chase Davis, a regional representative with the Sierra Club. "We believe these are special places and worthy of wilderness designation."

Federal wilderness protection means that no logging, road-building or mechanized activity like off-road driving is allowed in the designated areas, though human-powered recreational activities -- hunting, hiking, horseback-riding -- are allowed.

The Sierra Club is one of the lead agencies in the campaign, along with Spokane's Kettle Range Conservation Group, the Spokane Mountaineers and numerous other conservation groups.

To win these East Side wilderness areas will mean persuading at least one of Washington's two Democratic senators and Republican Rep. George Nethercutt Jr. to sponsor wilderness bills. Activists from Colville to Pullman have recently started collecting signatures on congressional postcards and buying ad space in rural newspapers and on Spokane Transit Authority buses to generate enthusiasm, says Derrick Knowles, volunteer coordinator for the Kettle Range group. To date, they've collected more than 1,000 post cards signed by area residents, he says.

The five Eastern Washington areas the coalition wants designated wilderness are

* Kettle Range, west of Colville in the Colville National Forest.

* Salmo-Priest, an addition to the existing wilderness area in the Colville National Forest.

* Abercrombie-Hooknose Roadless Area, due north of Colville.

* Quartzite Roadless Area, between Chewelah and Newport.

* Wenaha-Tucannon, an addition to the existing wilderness in southeast Washington, between Walla Walla and Clarkston in the Umatilla National Forest.

"We're talking about tens of thousands of acres," says Davis. "It's a substantial amount of public land."

The Colville National Forest sprawls across three northeast Washington mountain ranges -- the Okanogan, Kettle River and Selkirk -- and boasts some 1.1 million acres. Just 3 percent of that area (about 32,000 acres) is wilderness now, in Salmo-Priest. With the proposed additions, the folks at the Kettle Range group say they'd like to see one-third of the forest designated as wilderness, a 10-fold increase.

Sen. Patty Murray has voiced some support for the idea of expanding wilderness areas. Congressman Nethercutt remains undecided.

"This idea has been discussed for a long time, but no actual plan has been put forth," says April Gentry, a Nethercutt spokeswoman. "To move forward, there needs to be some concrete steps taken," including a written plan and support from private landowners who may be affected.

Environmental groups make several arguments, like the need to protect endangered species habitat. Another is that since only about 10 percent of Eastern Washington timber harvests come from national forest land, designating new wilderness areas won't have a significant impact on the natural resource economy. If all so-called roadless areas in Eastern Washington were suddenly off-limits to logging, "the projected National Forest harvest declines over the next five years would be negligible," writes Thomas Power, an economics professor at the University of Montana. The wilderness coalition paid for his 2000 study.

That's an argument that makes Charles McKetta laugh. A forest economist at the University of Idaho in Moscow, McKetta says that the negligible timber impact is true -- because environmental lawsuits and federal policy have already slashed timber harvests in national forests. There was a 93 percent decline in national forest logging between 1988 and 1998.

"That's an interesting piece of circular logic," says McKetta.

Given that the proposed new wilderness areas are supposed to be roadless already -- supposed to be, in other words, wild -- what's the point of congressional action? asks McKetta. His answer: "They're trying to reduce the options of land management."

Maurice Williamson is a timber consultant in Colville and a current trustee of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a group for larger timberland owners. To Williamson, the idea of setting aside more wilderness land is just another link in a chain of logging restrictions, a chain of administrative rules and lawsuits that's already entangled tree-cutters.

Of the 22 million acres of forest in Washington, says Williamson, 13 million acres are public lands.

"We need production from the public lands to maintain the mills," says Williamson. And, he reasons, timber management is a kind of protection in itself: "The worst tree farm is better than the best strip mall."

Environmentalists like Chase and Knowles say they're taking the long view.

"We still have a lot of pristine areas, but we've lost a lot," since Lewis and Clark explored the area, says Chase. "We hope there will be wild areas in another 200 years."

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