Judge orders removal of historic lookout in wilderness

DARRINGTON — A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Forest Service to remove a historic lookout from Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

The mood was sour at the Darrington Historical Society meeting Wednesday evening as people were met with the news that U.S. District Judge John Coughenour ruled in favor of a Montana-based conservation group that sued to have the lookout removed.

“I can’t tell you how totally devastated I am by this news,” said historical society president Leah Tyson. “I honestly don’t see how the judge could possibly believe that (the forest fire lookout) doesn’t belong up there.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2010 by Wilderness Watch, alleged that the Forest Service violated the federal Wilderness Act, which doesn’t allow for the use of motorized vehicles nor new construction in wilderness areas. Helicopters were used to haul out the old lookout and haul in what Wilderness Watch calls a new building.

The Forest Service has maintained that the lookout was restored, not reconstructed, and that the historical significance of the forest fire lookout made it an allowable project in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The lookout is on the national and state registers of historic places.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said in a statement Thursday that the judge disagreed with the Forest Service argument that historic preservation is allowed in the wilderness.

“Agencies like the Forest Service and National Park Service often erroneously claim that the National Historic Preservation Act requires them to save or rebuild structures in wilderness,” Nickas said. “But the judge got it right in this case. The Wilderness Act’s requirements to preserve wilderness character trump the more general goals for historic preservation under the National Historic Preservation Act.”

In his judgment, Coughenour said he noted that the “continued presence of the lookout invites increased traffic into an area of the wilderness which is already subject to overuse due to its proximity to the fast-growing Puget Sound population base.”

The judge said he considered the Forest Service claim that “there is considerable public interest in preserving the chapter of Washington history that the Green Mountain lookout represents.”

However, Coughenour said, “the purpose of the Wilderness Act weighs in favor of maintaining the ‘wilderness character’ of the area.”

Coughenour also ruled that the Forest Service did not properly conduct an environmental review of the lookout project, in violation of the National Environmental Protection Act.

The National Forest Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Department of Justice have not decided whether to file an appeal.

That decision would need to be made by May 27, he said.

“There are a lot of questions yet to be answered,” Forbes said. “But the judge has ruled that man is just a visitor in the wilderness.”

The Forest Service will do what it must in order to comply, Forbes said. This could include an expedited environmental analysis for the removal of the forest fire lookout.

The Forest Service probably would use a helicopter to take the lookout off Green Mountain, an allowable act to limit the amount of damage to the mountaintop and keep people safe during the process, he said.

Right now, the lookout is still buried in about 20 feet of snow, Forbes said.

In the summer of 1933, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew climbed the 6,500-foot-tall Green Mountain in 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 in the dry months still use the lookout. Hikers make it a destination.

Between 1980 and 2010, a cooperative effort by volunteers and the Darrington Ranger District worked to save the lookout from sliding down the mountain after it was damaged by heavy snows.

Outdoor recreation groups, a national fire lookout association, the Darrington Town Council, the Snohomish County Council and local, state and national historical associations filed a brief with the federal District Court in Seattle hoping to convince the federal judge that the lookout should be saved.

The lookout topped this past year’s Washington Trust for Historic Preservation list of the state’s most endangered historic properties.

More information on about the Green Mountain Lookout is at www.fs.usda.gov. And more about Wilderness Watch is at www.wildernesswatch.org.

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

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