Photo by Don Nelson
Congressman Dan Newhouse, at the podium, addressed chamber of commerce members at Sun Mountain Lodge last week.

Touches on other local topics in Methow Valley appearance

By Don Nelson

Congressman Dan Newhouse told a group of Winthrop and Twisp chamber of commerce members last week that he is “ambivalent” about whether grizzly bears should be reintroduced to the North Cascades — but he wants potentially affected communities to have more of a say on the issue.

That appears to be a somewhat less definitive stance than has been attributed to Newhouse in the past. He was recently instrumental in getting the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to delay consideration of a proposal by those agencies to reintroduce grizzlies into what a recent NPS study shows was, at one time, their natural habitat.

At last week’s meeting with local chamber representatives at Sun Mountain Lodge, Newhouse said he wants the agencies to take more time assessing research and gathering more public input on the proposal. Newhouse took credit for slowing the process through his membership on a House appropriations subcommittee. When funding for the proposal was threatened, Newhouse said, “that got their attention.”

The Department of the Interior, the NPS and FWS recently announced their intention to further evaluate input about the proposal. The agencies’ announcement means completion of a final Environmental Impact Statement and a record of decision that was expected to be completed this year will be delayed.

NPS and FWS said intervention by Newhouse was a factor in their decision: “In response to requests from stakeholders, including specific inquiries from Congressman Dan Newhouse, the two bureaus are taking appropriate additional time to consider and evaluate further stakeholder input to inform the planning and decision-making process. Public input, reliance on the best available science and coordination with affected communities, agencies and organizations will be critical before a decision is made.” They did not provide a timeframe for the further evaluation.

Stakeholders have had many opportunities to provide input on the proposal. The North Cascades grizzly recovery study began in 2014 under the Obama administration. A draft EIS on the restoration plan was released in early 2017, followed by public comment periods and public meetings, including one in Winthrop in February last year. More than 126,000 comments and correspondence have been received on the draft EIS.

Joe Scott, International Programs Director and grizzly bear specialist for Conservation Northwest, said earlier that the “vast majority” of the 126,00 comments supported the process and its bear restoration objectives. “Multiple polls and local testimonials have also demonstrated support for grizzly recovery from communities around the North Cascades, as have resolutions from local Native American nations including the Yakama Nation and Okanagan Nation Alliance,” he said.

Wants local input

“I’m ambivalent about grizzly bears per se,” Newhouse said at Sun Mountain Lodge last week. He drew a laugh when he pointed out that as a Sunnyside High School graduate, “I am a Grizzly.”

“What I took issue with was federal agencies going ahead without getting input from the people who are most-affected,” Newhouse said. “If you want grizzly bears, they’ll be here … We’re putting things on hold to make sure nothing happens without input from the people here. I wanted to make sure that people got a chance to be heard.”

Newhouse added that “we need to know more” about the historical presence of grizzly bears in the North Cascades, and their habitat needs. “There are things we need to learn about them,” the congressman said.

A recently completed study by the NPS turned up a wide range of evidence showing that grizzly bears roamed the North Cascades for thousands of years.

Newhouse said he supports preserving the species — but also wants to minimize contacts with humans and livestock.

“People in other areas have romantic ideas about grizzly bears, but they don’t have to live with them,” Newhouse said.

“Maybe it’s the perfect place,” Newhouse said of the remote North Cascades, which are remote and difficult for humans to easily access.

Other topics

Newhouse’s appearance was a generally friendly gathering, focused on issues that are important to the Methow Valley — and which Newhouse has been active in supporting, such as the Headwaters Campaign to restrict mining in the upper valley, and keeping the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in the Methow.

Newhouse said that he initially didn’t know much about the mining proposal and Headwaters effort. “My first thought was that mining was a good thing in Okanogan County,” Newhouse said. “But I had my eyes opened about the issue … It took some education.” Some Republicans asked him “why are you putting a closed-for-business sign on the county,” Newhouse said.

The Headwaters Campaign was launched in 2016 in response to a Canadian mining company’s plans to conduct exploratory drilling for copper deposits on Flagg Mountain near Mazama. The campaign advocates for a “mineral withdrawal,” which would make the public lands off-limits to mining for up to 20 years.

Dec. 30 is the deadline for a process known as “segregation,” the first step toward a mineral withdrawal. In February, Newhouse wrote a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture (which oversees BLM) and Forest Service urging those agencies to move the withdrawal process forward.

Newhouse said last week that he expects progress before the end-of-the-year deadline.

As for the smokejumper base, Newhouse said, it’s clear that the base’s historical importance, practical advantages and economic impact in the community make it imperative that the base stay in the Methow.

Necessary improvements at the base are ranked as the top priority for aviation-related infrastructure funding this year by the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region.

On another topic, Newhouse said Congress is also addressing the effect of “catastrophic” wildfires on the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget. The Forest Service has spent more than half of its budget on firefighting costs, he said, because of “fire borrowing” to keep up with more and bigger fires. It’s important to break the “fire borrowing cycle,” he said.

“Our forests are not very healthy,” the congressman added. “We have lots of issues with dead and dying trees.” He suggested that logging could be one way to deal with the problem.

Newhouse said that in a large, diverse district, “we won’t agree on everything.” He said more respectful discourse is needed, and that civility and bipartisanship need to improve as well. What Newhouse called “polarizing information sources … may make things worse in many ways.”

Newhouse said he used to listen to commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, and has now concluded that “they are self-serving … they want listeners … whether they tell the truth all the time is optional.”