Posted by Amber Benson
From Scruffy Beginnings to an Enduring Voice for the Wild (WWC at 30)
In the late 1970s the Wilderness movement in Washington was a scatter of feisty tribes huddled around campfires in rainy woods and bristling sagebrush. We peppered our forest service offices with letters seeking protection for our favorite Wilderness areas. We held rallies, lead hikes, challenged timber sales, and harangued small-town reporters to write stories about the importance of wilderness.
To be sure, venerable groups like the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, the Mountaineers, and Friends of the Earth had offices in Seattle and contacts in Washington City. But from rural outposts where activists watched our home forests being clearcut at a staggering pace, Seattle seemed a long way off. And as for Washington City, it might well have been on another planet.
We had been through the frustrations of trying to influence forest service district plans in the 1970s. Hope sprung anew when Jimmy Carter was elected president. The forest service's RARE II initiative (Roadless Area Review and Evaluation) brought new hope. But we had underestimated the timber industry's political reach, and the final recommendations were a disappointment. When state-wide wilderness advocates gathered at a grange hall in Ellensburg in 1979, Wilderness protection for our threatened wildlands seemed a long ways off.
I remember a meeting with the late Karen Fant, one of the most inspiring wilderness advocates in the state and an indomitable spirit. Karen proposed forming a statewide coalition to unite grass-roots wilderness groups, provide an organization and staff, and move our wilderness campaigns ahead as a united federation. Ken Gersten, a visionary young activist from Seattle had signed on with Karen, and I agreed to be a part of the organization's founding board of directors. In the fall of 1979, WWC was born.
We were, in retrospect, a rather scruffy lot, and not terribly well-heeled. A financial statement in my files from our first board meeting lists five member groups. WWC's net worth at the time (December, 1979) was $97.71. But we lacked in funds and political acumen we made up for in passion. Karen and Ken proved to be excellent field organizers, and by the early 1980s the Washington Wilderness Coalition had active grass-roots member groups across the state. This organization proved invaluable in the campaign leading up to the passage of the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act. Local groups lined up business, civic group, and political support in every congressional district in the state. If Tip O'Neil was accurate ("All politics is local,") then WWC's grass-roots organizing is responsible for many of the far-flung victories in the '84 legislation.
Which is not to say we finished the job -- or even came close to it. Behind the formal celebrations we suffered the wounds of areas not included in the bill. Lena Lake, the South Fork Skokomish and South Quinault Ridge were particularly painful omissions on the Olympic forest. Neglect of the Kettle Range in the Columbia highlands was a statewide tragedy.
The odds have been stacked against us multiple times over the past quarter century. But the wilderness movement in Washington state has never been stronger. With the winds of Wild Sky at out backs, citizens are once more working for new Wilderness areas across the state. A new generation of activists have joined the old hands -- just as I grew in the shadow of giants like Polly Dyer, Pat Goldsworthy, Phil Zalesky, and Karen Fant. The legacy of Wilderness will always inspire souls who will speak out in its defense. And after 30 years, WWC will be part of the wildlands victories in Washington that are still come.
Tim McNulty, one of the original directors of Washington Wilderness Coalition, is a poet, nature writer and conservationist who has long been active in Northwest literary and environmental communities.
Tim has served 35 years on the board of trustees of the Olympic Park Associates, and is also working currently with the Olympic Watershed Coalition on wildlands and river protection in the Olympic Mountains. He lives with his family in the foothills of Washington's Olympic Mountains.