4 in Congress back bill to halt removal of wilderness lookout

DARRINGTON — Lawmakers are pushing to protect the Green Mountain forest fire lookout and establish federal wild-and-scenic status for Illabot Creek, both in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Four members of Washington state’s congressional delegation — Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Democratic Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen — introduced legislation this past week.

In the case of Green Mountain Lookout, the aim is to protect the lookout, located in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The legislation comes after a Montana-based group filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for using a helicopter and machinery to repair the lookout, in violation of the federal Wilderness Act.

The Forest Service maintained that the lookout’s historical significance made it an allowable project. As a result of the lawsuit, the U.S. District Court in Seattle ordered the Forest Service to remove the lookout from the 6,500-foot mountain.

George Nickas, director of Wilderness Watch, the group that sued, says the proposed legislation picks away at the Wilderness Act.

Federal wild-and-scenic status for Illabot Creek would protect it as an important habitat for threatened wild chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout and other wildlife, while maintaining recreational opportunities such as hunting and fishing, said Murray’s staff in a joint press release from the four law makers.

Martha Rasmussen, the head of the volunteer group Darrington Area Friends for Public Use, said she has a mixed reaction to the proposed legislation.

Rasmussen and many people in Snohomish County support the protection of the Green Mountain lookout, one of few surviving fire lookouts in the West, she said.

“It’s a shame that those who want it torn down pit history and heritage against wilderness. The effort to save the lookout failed in court because of the language presented. It needs to be challenged,” Rasmussen said.

Illabot Creek is actually in the Skagit County part of the forest, but it always has been a destination from Darrington, she said.

“The thing I worry about with the wild-and-scenic designation is that repairs to access roads may be too expensive or not be allowed in the protected area, so we stand eventually to lose Illabot as a destination,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t want the designation.”

Green Mountain’s lookout was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Along with its use as a key fire lookout in the logging heyday, Green Mountain also was an early warning station for aerial attacks during World War II. The lookout is on national and state registers of historic places.

Illabot Creek flows into the Skagit River watershed, which includes parts of northeast Snohomish County. The watershed supports one of the largest concentrations of wintering bald eagles in the country.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968. It prohibits dams and other water projects that impair the free-flowing nature of listed rivers and establishes a protected corridor on both sides of the river.

The proposed laws are the same as those that were presented last year, according to Larsen’s office. The bills expired at the end of the past congressional session and had to be re-introduced. Green Mountain and Illabot Creek now are in DelBene’s 1st Congressional District, redrawn last year and removed from Larsen’s 2nd district.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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