Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park. Photo by Galyna Andrushko

U. S. Representative Derek Kilmer is a native of his home district, raised by two educators in Port Angeles, Washington. The city of 19,000 is the largest along the 90-mile northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula .

Kilmer speaks fondly of a childhood, “hiking the Hoh, paddling the sound.” The representative is a creature of his Northwest Washington district, most of which is characterized by rural and public land.

Kilmer, who was first elected to Congress in 2012, believes that activities like these are one of the key economic engines for rural communities. “There’s a lot of money, a lot of income, in outdoor recreation.”

Kilmer, collaborating with Washington Senator Patty Murray, hopes to strengthen his district’s economy by expanding recreation opportunities in the Olympic region. Their Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has a goal of protecting more than 126,500 acres of Olympic National Forest as wilderness along with 19 rivers and their tributaries. Working with community partners in the Wild Olympics Campaign, Kilmer said his bill “has an eye toward the notion that you can both protect land and support job creation. It’s not an either/or approach. It’s a both/and.”

The outdoor recreation economy supports 7.6 million American jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending annually, according to a recent report from the Outdoor Industry Association. The industry generated $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue in 2016. The recreation economy is larger than key economic sectors of education, gasoline and fuels, motor vehicle, and pharmaceuticals. And the backbone of this industry, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, is America’s public lands and waterways.

A study from the independent, nonpartisan research organization Headwaters Economics links the presence of public land in rural Western counties with better economic performance. “Western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands on average had faster population, employment, and personal income growth than their peers with the lowest share of federal lands,” the study found. “Per capita incomes grew somewhat faster” from the 1970s to the 2010s.

Mason County Commissioner Terri Jeffreys of Shelton supports the proposed Wild Olympics legislation. “We’ve been at the forefront of diversifying our local economy and promoting our world-class outdoor recreation and stunning natural beauty,” she said in a statement. “We know it’s imperative we protect and enhance access to the incredible outdoor adventures offered by our pristine waterways and spectacular public lands.” Mason County, along with numerous Hood Canal entrepreneurs, collaborate to market the region as “the Wild Side of Washington.”

Roy Nott, an Aberdeen resident and timber businessperson, believes that strengthening public lands protection is a key to attracting talent and long-term employees. He supports the Wild Olympics proposal, “not just as a draw for tourists but also a residential draw for forest-lovers like myself and my family.”

Nott said in a statement that the region will continue to see success by balancing the forest products industry and forest protection. Technological advancements allow wood-product manufacturers to create more valuable composite products from younger trees that grow faster. “These technologies require us to be smarter and more globally and market-minded, but they permit us – for the first time in our history – to have it both ways: to have a strong forest products sector along with legal protections for the remaining, virgin forests that have always provided our fantastic living and vacationing environment.”

Some citizens on the Olympic Peninsula are opposed to the Wild Olympics plans, calling it “Obama’s land deal power grab.” Critics say that a Wilderness designation would limit access to public land, decrease a needed focus on wildfire prevention, and increase the federal deficit. They point to a history of mismanagement of local federal lands that they say could signal trouble to come.

Representative Kilmer says that the 2017 proposal takes these criticisms into account. The current Wild Olympics proposal is an outgrowth of “extensive conversations with local communities, Native American tribes, the timber industry, environmental groups, and small business owners throughout the Peninsula. We’ve figured out to how to thread the needle.” Input from Peninsula communities ensured that the legislative proposal was designed to have no impact on timber jobs and close no roads. As local efforts for the proposal move ahead, more than 700 local elected officials, businesses, hunting and fishing groups, and sport fishing entrepreneurs endorsed the legislation.

Whether the Wild Olympics proposal moves forward remains an open question for now. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a self-described “Teddy Roosevelt guy,” continues to maintain his commitment to neither sell nor transfer federal lands. But in late April, President Trump signed an Executive Order opening a review on the use of the Antiquities Act to designate National Monuments, which could affect the Executive branch’s ability to protect federal lands.

Senator Murray and Representative Kilmer both acknowledge that their proposal might not make it through Congress this year. But they think it represents the future of Northwest Washington. “Conservation, protecting our waterways, the recreation economy, that’s the positive future for the rural places of the Olympic Peninsula,” Kilmer said.

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