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Wild and Crazy

Wilderness Bill a Major Point of Contention in Senate Race

What seemed like a simple way to brandish the environmental credentials of Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) and score him a legislative coup just may backfire on the Spokane lawmaker as he tries to topple Sen. Patty Murray (D).

Making his first run at statewide office, Nethercutt needed to introduce himself to voters west of the Cascade Mountains. He also needed to convince them that he is not a hard-core Eastern Washington conservative.

Getting behind a proposal to create a new wilderness area northeast of Seattle seemed like a good place to start.

The proposal, known as Wild Sky, is popular with many Washington residents and championed by local and national environmental groups.

But pending legislation — co-authored by Murray and the area’s Democratic Congressman, Rick Larsen — has been stuck in the House Resources Committee, where Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) is loath to designate new wilderness areas.

The bill has twice passed the Senate, and Bush administration officials have indicated that the president would sign it.

According to people who have worked the legislation for several years, Nethercutt, who had never taken a position on the proposal before, apparently thought he could sign onto the bill this year, make a few tweaks, get Pombo on board and take credit for preserving the roughly 106,000 acres, all the while winning over environmentalists and Western Washington voters.

Instead, he has drawn the ire of environmental groups, upset his colleagues in the Washington delegation and been left to draft an entirely new bill that seems acceptable to no one except, possibly, Pombo, who has scheduled a markup of Nethercutt’s legislation today.

Larsen and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) recently issued a release saying they were “exasperated” with Nethercutt. They accused him of “dumping aside three years of bipartisan efforts, community involvement, and negotiations” and of producing a “low-ball proposal.”

Nethercutt already has been taken to task by local editorial boards and columnists for appropriating Larsen’s signature issue to score political points. And now the greens are piling on, charging that he double-crossed Murray and Larsen by walking away from a July compromise the trio’s staffs drafted in an effort to save his political hide.

“The compromise was truly within the spirit of the Wilderness Act, which is why it’s so profoundly disappointing that we have this sudden about-face,” said John Owen, a Campaign for America’s Wilderness spokesman. “He’s created some 11th-hour, ad hoc proposal that Washingtonians don’t want.”

Nethercutt’s campaign maintains that he did what is necessary to move the bill out of the Resources Committee.

“George is so right on the issue,” said Nethercutt campaign spokesman Alex Conant. “He has crafted a piece of legislation that at least has the hopes of getting out of committee, can get to the floor and get to a conference committee.

“They’re putting partisan politics above [results],” he continued. “Anything could happen in a conference committee. The House Resources Committee is the only roadblock, and George’s bill jumps that hurdle. He worked with Larsen, he worked with Murray, he worked with both proponents and opponents, and his bill is the only one that has a chance of getting through the committee.”

Things are not turning out the way the principals envisioned it.

The bill was supposed to be a slam dunk once Nethercutt got on board. The belief was that Republican leaders, eager to give Nethercutt accomplishments to crow about on the campaign trail, would urge Pombo to back him.

Instead, Pombo has demanded concessions that Wild Sky proponents have said are deal-breakers — mainly, the elimination of roughly 13,000 acres of low-level forests from wilderness protection.

For his part, Nethercutt says he is the deal-maker and that Murray is the obstacle to making Wild Sky reality.

“I want to preserve the area,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “I want to find a solution to bring these groups together rather than demagogue it. I’m working with my own leadership. All I can do is get something through the House and urge the Senate to do the same thing. Patty is the only impediment to that happening.”

Murray’s campaign scoffed at that notion.

“If George Nethercutt cared about this bill he would have gotten on board two years ago,” said Alex Glass, Murray’s campaign spokeswoman. “Representative Jennifer Dunn [R-Wash.] got on board; he never showed any interest until he was kicking off his campaign. Even under these circumstances, Senator Murray was willing to work with him and put politics aside to preserve this land for Washington state.”

Dunn has signed onto Nethercutt’s bill as well. The retiring Congresswoman sees it as a way to advance the issue and does not share the “all or nothing” approach some Democrats and environmentalists are advocating, said Pierce Scranton, Dunn’s chief of staff.

If Nethercutt had hoped to improve his standing with environmental groups — he received an “F” on the American Wilderness Coalition’s report card and was named one of the League of Conservation Voters’ “dirty dozen” — his willingness to give less protection to a key 13,000-acre part of the proposed wilderness area may not have been the way to do it.

Nethercutt has proposed bestowing “backcountry wilderness management area” designation — a completely new term — onto the “critical” low elevation forests that environmentalists call “the heart and soul” of the entire Wild Sky proposal.

Bill Arthur, the deputy national field director for the Sierra Club, said if Nethercutt was serious about passing Wild Sky and wanted to prove his clout in the House, “he ought to go over Pombo’s head” and appeal directly to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Nethercutt ruled out the idea of bypassing Pombo, noting that leaders are reluctant to override their chairman.

“He’s the chairman,” Nethercutt said, expressing confidence that he could craft a proposal acceptable to Pombo. “It wouldn’t do any good to go above Pombo; I don’t want this to be forced.”

Nethercutt’s efforts to appease Pombo are not winning him accolades back home.

The Snohomish County Herald, in the heart of Wild Sky country, blasted Nethercutt for abandoning the compromise that his office, Larsen’s and Murray’s agreed to and was palatable to all the major environmental players.

“So now the powerful committee chairman from California, who might never set foot in Snohomish County, is ready to bless a Wild Sky Wilderness proposal,” Monday’s editorial read. “That’s hardly surprising, since the version he likes, crafted by Nethercutt, has absolutely no trace of bipartisanship in it.”

Nethercutt denies that he walked away from a deal because he says he never agreed to one.

“I never sat in the same room with Murray and Larsen,” Nethercutt said, adding that there were “preliminary” discussions held at the staff level, nothing more.

“Never have I come to any agreement to say, ‘Everyone stay with this and no one leave to try to get something else through.’ I told Rick that,” Nethercutt said.

For his part, Larsen says he is greatly disappointed in Nethercutt.

“I thought he would be able to stand up to the committee chair [and] stand firm behind the compromise proposal,” Larsen said. “It’s disappointing that Congressman Nethercutt hijacked this proposal and then decided to gut it.

“If this is politically motivated, he would have jumped onto the original proposal and supported it all the way; now it looks like he is trying to gut the bill for political expediency rather than getting any support from anyone in Washington state,” Larsen said. “It will backfire even more than it has now on Representative Nethercutt.”

Ultimately, Nethercutt is gambling that he can tee off Democrats and environmental groups and still score points with voters if his bill becomes law.

Murray, Larsen and greens would have to make a complex and nuanced argument to explain why they would prefer no deal to Nethercutt’s.

“Patty is putting partisan politics above preserving the environment,” Conant charged. “She would rather stop Wild Sky Wilderness legislation from even reaching a conference than let George take credit.”

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