A battle for ‘the greatest good’

  • By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
  • Sunday, August 21, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

From the top of Green Mountain, the view is spectacular in every direction, with miles of forest land stretching beyond peak after craggy peak.

Except for the occasional sound of an airplane or the wind in the trees, it’s quiet on the mountain. And lonesome.

Few have visited Green Mountain sin

ce floods washed out access to a trail that leads to a forest fire lookout at the summit.

But the mountain is the focus of the latest noisy skirmish over Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and, in a sense, the U.S. Forest Service.

In the summer of 1933, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew climbed the 6,500-foot-tall mountain in this remote area of the North Cascade Range east of Darrington. They packed with them the supplies to build the lookout, which then was staffed every summer for decades.

While most fire spotting now is done by airplane, rangers trekking through the forest still use the lookout, which also is in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area. And hikers make the lookout a destination.

During the past decade, heavy snows threatened to push the lookout down the mountain. Volunteers and the Darrington Ranger District came together to restore the structure.

Fast forward to this summer.

Wilderness Watch, a Montana-based national watchdog group, filed a lawsuit against the Forest Servicet that is pending in federal District Court in Seattle.

The environmental group maintains the process by which the forest officials used a helicopter to help put the lookout back together is a violation of the federal Wilderness Act. While the act does allow for historic buildings, most uses of motorized vehicles and all new construction in wilderness areas are not. Wilderness Watch seeks to tear down the lookout, which it claims is a new structure, and have it hauled away.

Historic preservation groups and numerous recreation clubs, the Darrington Town Council and the Snohomish County Council issued statements against the lawsuit and some filed briefs with the court hoping to convince the court that the lookout should remain.

While people wait for progress in court, the debate about the lookout rages on national websites, in letters to newspaper editors and in local coffee shops.

Yet, this battle echoes the past. From its beginnings 120 years ago, the work of the U.S. Forest Service has stirred deep emotions and controversy.

Whether the issue is logging, wilderness, recreation or the environment, the questions remain: What are the national forests for, and what does the public expect from the Forest Service?

Preservation vs. conservation

At first the issue was preservation versus conservation.

Should the forest be left alone or should it be used to help the still-young country grow for generations to come?

In the post-Civil War years, people had a new fervent awareness of nature that helped establish Yellowstone as the first national park. Naturalist John Muir argued at the time that perhaps all federal lands should be preserved with limited access for people.

Gifford Pinchot, the chief of the Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt, held the more utilitarian view that the national forests should benefit communities. The forests were to be used like a farm, not like a park.

To manage these public lands, Pinchot pushed for the agency to be placed under the federal Department of Agriculture. Pinchot, who became known as the father of the Forest Service, set up a century of policy about how public lands were managed.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, one of the most visited forests in the country, stretches 150 miles, north to south, across big swaths of Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

About half of the 1.7 million acre forest is wilderness, with the greatest portion in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

The forest has 31 campgrounds, 24 picnic sites, 13 historic fire lookouts, 1,500 miles of hiking trails, 168 miles of snowmobile trails and four ski areas.

In 2010, the local Forest Service improved wildlife and fish habitat, rehabilitated watershed areas, controlled noxious weeds and planted six acres of conifers. It sold 14 million board feet of timber, 2,203 cords of wood for fuel, nearly 9,000 Christmas trees and allowed for noncommercial thinning contracts on 330 acres of tree plantations.

Forest Service employees in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest number about 100, with seasonal jobs added in the summer. The forest’s total budget has seen ups and downs, but in recent years it decreased to $13 million in 2009 from about $16 million in 2003.

In 1993, Congress funded about 80 percent of the forest’s recreation needs. By 2006, federal funding fell to about a third of recreation revenue. For trails alone, the forest used to get about $500,000 annually. Today, that’s down to about $20,000, said Gary Paull, trails coordinator for the forest.

To keep campsites open and trails maintained, the Forest Service relies on fees, grants and help from tribes, volunteer groups such as Back Country Horsemen and Everett Mountaineers, and corporations including REI and Microsoft.

‘Get out the cut’

After World War II, the U.S. Forest Service’s mission in its timber heyday was to “get out the cut and bring in the harvest,” said Char Miller, a Pomona College professor of environmental analysis and an expert on Pinchot and the history of the Forest Service.

The impetus was the swelling baby boom and the building boom in suburbs throughout the country.

Logging companies and lumber mills in Snohomish County employed thousands. Statewide, timber was among the most important industries. The Forest Service attracted young men with college degrees who rose through the agency’s ranks based in part on how much timber was sold. Those sales helped fund the establishment of schools and roads in the county, which also built support for the harvest, Miller said.

With the prosperity of the 1950s and early 1960s, people in the Northwest had money for vacations.

“But when they drove out to the national forests, the first thing they saw were the clear-cuts on the steep slopes of the mountains,” Miller said. “For many, it was a jaw-dropping moment.”

The national environmental awakening of the 1960s and 1970s led to a slew of new federal laws such as the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Forest Service had to change with the times and begin to answer myriad new questions about such issues as forest fires. Should they be fought or let to burn in order to maintain a more natural ecosystem?

Enter the spotted owl

By the 1970s, hydrologists and wildlife biologists were thrown into the mix at the Forest Service. The scientists didn’t share the get-out-the-cut ethos. While many old-guard Forest Service employees had environmental concerns of their own, the agency was thrown into turmoil, Miller said.

“There were pressures from communities to log more of the forest and pressures to conserve the land that attracts tourists and protect wildlife,” he said. “There were heated internal debates and public discussions about the agency’s mission.”

In the 1980s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife put the northern spotted owl on the federal endangered species list, prompting a stop to logging in old-growth forests — the bird’s habitat. Logging companies and environmental groups battled in court over the owl.

In the town of Darrington, Mayor Joyce Jones still bemoans the spotted owl.

“The logging industry was blindsided. In the 1970s, we would have at least 25 bidders on each timber sale in the forest. After the spotted owl controversy, the bottom just fell out,” Jones said. “People here thought they could work it out, and when they couldn’t they began to realize that their way of life was going away forever.”

A retired Forest Service employee from a family of transplanted North Carolina loggers, Jones said the Darrington community now is committed to getting tourists to town. The Darrington Area Business Association regularly posts photos from forest hikes on its Facebook page and website and is constantly working to find ways to promote tourism, Jones said.

“Recreation in the forest is very important to us,” Jones said. “It’s just sad right now that our visitors can’t get to all the places they want to go. We have lost many easy day hikes for families.”

The mission of the Darrington District is to provide services to the public, said the district’s Ranger Peter Forbes.

“We’re not successful in all cases. We have a hard enough time maintaining the trails, let alone adding capacity. Our choices for work are limited by how Congress funds us: Is the money for fish, for recreation, for roads? It’s frustrating for me not to be able to do more. We have a huge backlog of road maintenance and a lot of access issues.”

A loss for the county

While many people blame environmentalists for the decline of timber industries, automation in mills, steep declines in housing markets and low tax revenues also have hurt.

During the timber heyday, 25 percent of timber sales — payment in lieu of taxes — came back to local jurisdictions for roads and schools in the county. When that decreased, the county took a huge hit and lost help for infrastructure projects, Forbes said.

Snohomish County Councilman John Koster said the loss of those funds has been felt more in other counties, but it has hurt this county.

“A lot of people would like see more timber sales and plantation thinning. That would be nice, but the Forest Service has a broad charge. They are under a lot of pressure and some of it is nonsense,” Koster said. “While we must be good stewards of public lands, people need be able to get out into these areas to see it and understand the value.”

One of those who would like to see more harvesting in the Darrington District of the forest is Hampton Lumber chief executive officer Steve Zika.

Hampton runs the last big lumber mill in the Darrington area. It processes hemlock and Douglas fir, primarily for studs and framing lumber, and produces about 50 million board feet of lumber a year.

Most of those trees come from private lands and much of the lumber is sold overseas, Zika said.

About a third of the company’s timber harvest is on state Department of Natural Resources land and about 5 percent in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie forest.

“We can’t count on the forest anymore. It’s locked up, and the Forest Service is handcuffed because of environmental lawsuits,” Zika said. “It’s frustrating because the forest is right there next to our Darrington mill. Even just another 10 million feet of skinny trees would produce more local jobs, cut down on the driving we do and make the forest healthier.”

Provider of water

When the Forest Service had its start, most of the natural resources were in the West and the population was in the East. Now the West has huge urban centers such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. These population centers flare out into sparsely populated areas, many very near national forests and national parks.

“Millions of people have the forest in their back yards. They can see it as they drive the freeway,” Forbes said. “We are trying to accommodate their recreational needs and protect the watersheds that supply their drinking water.”

Indeed, said Miller, recreation and water supply have replaced logging as the central mission of the Forest Service.

About 60 percent of all the water critical to Westerners flows off national forest land and that water has allowed cities to grow, Miller said. In Western Washington, the amount of drinking water that originates in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is closer to 85 percent. Even the Spada Lake reservoir, which supplies drinking water to Everett and much of the county, is fed by water that flows off the national forest.

Forest Road No. 26

As timber production has tailed off, the struggle has returned to where it started: preservation versus conservation.

This was supposed to be the autumn when people could once again access the Cascade Crest Trail and the Glacier Peak Wilderness from Snohomish County. For many hikers across Western Washington it’s been an eight-year wait. Officials with the Washington Trails Association expressed excitement when road improvement projects in the forest were announced in January.

One of the access roads up into the mountains is the Suiattle River Road.

It’s been years since people could drive the length of the road, also known as Forest Road No. 26. The popular route leads to trails, including the one to Green Mountain, campgrounds and tribal cemeteries. Now it is even wilder in the wilderness that surrounds Glacier Peak, the 10,541-foot-tall volcano that is Snohomish County’s highest point.

In the face of a lawsuit brought in April by the Pilchuck Audubon Society, the North Cascades Conservation Council and Lynnwood hiker Bill Lider, the federal government backed out of plans to continue repairs this summer.

The issue was that proposed repairs would destroy old trees that are home to the northern spotted owl and the endangered marbled murrelet, said Lider, who also objected to the use of emergency highway repair funds for the project, since the last road-damaging flood was in 2007.

The Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration now plan to do additional environmental analysis of the road project.

“We did an environmental assessment in 2006, but had another flood in 2007,” Forbes said. “We restarted the process this summer, but it will be at least another year before we can get back to repairing the Suiattle River Road. If we haven’t done a good job, we should be challenged.

“But our folks pride themselves on staying current on the sciences and the issues. It does cause us to spend a lot more time, money and energy analyzing projects before we move forward.”

Lider thinks by allowing trees to grow old and allowing only low-impact uses of the forest, eco-tourism could be big in the Darrington area.

“I don’t want Suiattle River closed, but it can be a rough road,” Lider said. “I would like to see it open to the Buck Creek campground and the Green Mountain trailhead, but not for recreational vehicle drivers going 40 mph.”

One of the problems with letting Forest Road No. 26 remain as is, Forbes said, is that federal standards require that forest roads be safe.

Another issue is that the forest has an aging population living nearby.

“We have people who can’t drive, much less walk, hike or ride a mountain bike into the forest. That doesn’t mean we need a road to every pretty spot in the forest,” Forbes said. “People on both sides are unhappy, so maybe we’re doing something right.”

‘The greatest good’

More than a century ago, Gifford Pinchot held that the Forest Service’s mission was to do “the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.”

People are still debating what that greatest good is, who are the greatest number and how long is the run.

“The second century of the Forest Service will be every bit as contentious as the first, and until we figure out how to better talk about why we have public lands and their use, the arguments will be solved in the courts,” Miller said.

For George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, the group suing over Green Mountain Lookout, it’s about respect for the Wilderness Act, which protects wilderness areas in their natural states, “untrammeled by man.”

“It’s supposed to be free of structures, free of motor vehicle use. The (lookout) is either legal or it’s not. For people to say it’s OK is the same as saying the wilderness should be open to off-road vehicles,” Nickas said earlier this year. “Everybody wants it their way. The hikers don’t want the loggers or the miners or the off-road vehicle folks. You can’t expect your pet use to be OK, when the Wilderness Act is designed for us to step back and let it truly be a wild place. Without it, future generations won’t know what wilderness is.”

Wilderness Watch is a reflection of some factions of the larger environmental movement in the country, Miller said.

“Wilderness Watch is ahistorical. For this group, it’s not about human history,” Miller said. “The local interest in history and tradition is deeply felt. Set within the context of the different user groups, the Green Mountain Lookout tower becomes symbolic for the argument about what the forests are for.

“The National Forests always have been fought over because they are public lands. We own them and feel we must have a voice in the long-standing dialogue about these treasured lands.”

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

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