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Washington's Newest Wilderness Celebrates First Birthday

The Middle Fork Snoqualmie River is one of two that received protection as Wild and Scenic just a year ago. (Thomas O'Keefe)
The Middle Fork Snoqualmie River is one of two that received protection as Wild and Scenic just a year ago. (Thomas O'Keefe)
December 18, 2015

SNOQUALMIE, Wash. - At this time a year ago, Washington gained its newest wilderness acreage when President Obama signed a bill expanding the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. For the town of Snoqualmie, one of the closest to the Alpine Lakes area, the wilderness addition has capped off a big year.

Money magazine named the town one of the nation's "five best" to live in, in part for its abundance of outdoor recreation options. Mayor Matt Larson, who was among the early backers of the expansion, said the city's vision is paying off.

"We want to focus on economic development but we certainly don't want to go the route of big-box retail and that sort of thing, and so our focus is really marketing and branding around this being a recreation and tourist destination," he said. "There's tremendous growth pressures around the entire region, and any efforts that can preserve those recreational experiences for people is a real win for us."

Larson said companies such as Spacelabs Healthcare, a major employer in town, tell him the outdoorsy lifestyle is a selling point when competing with bigger companies for workers. He added that it's also a nice amenity for a busy mayor who needs an occasional day off.

Advocates for the Alpine Lakes expansion made their case to Congress for adding low-elevation land that's easier to access than 9,400-foot Mount Stuart and the other lofty peaks in the original wilderness designation from 1976. It took a few years to make the case, and Tom Uniack, conservation director for Washington Wild, said it happened not a minute too soon.

"In the last year, a timber sale was approved by the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest just outside the new wilderness boundary," Uniack said. "So, those protections were actually timely and necessary, from our perspective."

The legislation included protections for portions of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt rivers, adding about 20 percent to the state's inventory of Wild and Scenic rivers. Next year, improvements to an access road near the wilderness area will be finished to make it easier to get to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA