Senate-passed lands bill includes Ice Age flood trail

WASHINGTON -- A massive public lands bill approved by the Senate on Thursday would create a geologic trail that would track the route of catastrophic Ice Age floods that swept across and scoured the landscape of the Northwest from the Idaho Panhandle to the Pacific Ocean.

The bill also would offer new protections to the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail and launch a program to study and monitor ocean acidification, a potentially devastating greenhouse gas-related development caused by the 22 million tons of carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans daily.

The legislation pulls together 150 separate public lands, parks and water bills in one package. It designates 2 million additional acres as wilderness areas in nine states -- though not Washington -- authorizes water projects on tribal lands and designates new wild and scenic rivers.

The measure was bottled up in the Senate last year by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said it was filled with dubious projects and riddled with earmarks. But with Democrats firmly in control, the Senate voted in a rare Sunday session to proceed with the bill.

On Thursday, the Senate approved the bill 73-21.

The House is expected to vote on the package in the coming weeks.

Motorists driving along the 600-mile Ice Age flood trail would be able to stop at interpretive centers and pullouts to read roadside signs and markers tracing the story of the floods, unleashed when, at one point, an ice dam in what is now Montana collapsed, draining a reservoir the size of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in two days.

At its largest, Glacial Lake Missoula, as it was known, was more than 2,000 feet deep and held more than 500 cubic miles of water. The largest flood shook the ground as it swept down the Columbia River drainage with 10 times the combined flow of all the world's rivers.

The flood waters backed up into Oregon's Willamette Valley, covering the current site of Portland under 300 feet of water and reaching as far south as Eugene.

Sediment from the flood has been found hundreds of miles off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.

The series of floods 13,000 to 18,000 years ago during the most recent Ice Age redistributed more than 50 cubic miles of earth and rock, rearranging the countryside and creating buttes, boulder fields, lakes, ridges, gravel bars and coulees that still exist today. One of the most eerie sites is Dry Falls in eastern Washington, with a rim 10 times that of Niagara Falls.

The National Park Service would oversee the geologic trail, which would cost an estimated $8 million to $12 million to create.

"Our region's Ice Age flood legacy is etched all over the Pacific Northwest, and this trail will serve as a valuable learning tool to educate Americans on our unique geological history as well as a boost for local tourism," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement.

Gary Kleinknecht, president of the Ice Age Floods Institute, a Richland, Wash., group that has studied the floods extensively, said the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail is a "first of its kind" program.

Kleinknecht, in statement, said the bill would boost ecotourism in the region while at the same time "increasing the public's awareness of how the forces of nature shape our planet and affect our lives."

Cantwell originally had introduced standalone Ice Age flood trail and Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail bills.

The lands bill designates the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail as a National Scenic Trail, a designation that should provide additional protection and additional funding for maintenance.

The trail runs from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, passing through the Rocky Mountains, the Selkirk Mountains, Pasayten Wilderness, the North Cascades, the Olympic Mountains and wilderness coastline. It crosses three national parks and seven federal forests.

With scientists increasingly concerned, the public lands bill also requires a comprehensive national research and monitoring program of ocean acidification. In absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the chemistry of the oceans is changing, threatening the food chain, from tiny marine animals to such fish as Northwest salmon.

In addition, the bill establishes a coastal and estuarine land protection program that will provide federal grants for states to acquire coastal land for conservation and recreational purpose and requires a review of wildland firefighter safety training programs.

"The abundance of public lands in Washington state means we must be diligent in fighting for their protection and stewardship," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement, adding that the bill promotes "common sense land use policies" that will benefit the state's communities."