WASHINGTON -- A major public lands bill approved Wednesday by the House of Representatives and headed to the White House for barack Obama's signature creates a geologic trail that tracks the cataclysmic ice age floods that roared across eastern Washington state thousands of years ago with 10 times the combined flow of the world's rivers.
The 600-mile Ice Age Flood Trail would include interpretive centers, roadside signs and markers. Motorists could track the course of the floods, which were unleashed when an ice dam in what is now Montana collapsed, draining a reservoir the size of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in two days. The so-called Glacial Lake Missoula was 2,000 feet deep and held more than 500 cubic miles of water.
The series of floods between 13,000 and 18,000 years ago rearranged 50 cubic miles of rock and earth, creating buttes, ridges, coulees, lakes and fields of boulders that remain today. Dry Falls in Washington state is one of the eeriest sites, with a rim 10 times larger than Niagara Falls.
The floodwaters swept down the Columbia River Gorge, covering the current site of Portland, Ore., under 300 feet of water and reaching as far south as Eugene. Sediment from the floods has been found in the Pacific hundreds of miles offshore.
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The National Park Service will oversee the new trail, which would cost an estimated $8 million to $12 million to establish.
"For central and eastern Washington communities, the Ice Age Flood Trail designation will provide an economic boost and educational opportunity for visitors to learn about an important part of our region's history," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement.
The measure also provided new protections to the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail, which runs from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, crossing three national parks and seven national forests.
Even though he was the original House sponsor of the Ice Age Flood Trail proposal, Rep. Doc Hastings, D-Wash., voted against the public lands bill, saying there were too many others problems with the legislation to justify his support.
"This bill, on the whole, is not worthy of my support," Hastings said during floor debate. As the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, Hastings led the opposition to the measure.
Hastings said the bill was "largely a product of closed-door deal making" by Democrats, while Republicans were denied any "reasonable" participation. He said the bill would restrict potential development of energy resources on public lands, affect national security by banning the use of vehicles along some sections of the border, and ban the use of motorized vehicles, including wheelchairs, on public lands covered in the bill.
Hastings was also angry that Democrats blocked his effort to offer a floor amendment that would have overturned a recent court decision striking down a Bush administration rule allowing the carrying of firearms in the national parks under certain circumstances.
"Of course, the bill contains some worthwhile provisions including a few I authored, but if we were wise, our recent experiences with TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and the stimulus bill would serve as a cautionary tale about the need for deliberation before passing gargantuan bills," Hastings said.