DARRINGTON — A federal judge has given the U.S. Forest Service time to explore its options regarding removal of the historic Green Mountain fire lookout in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
The Forest Service now is expected to draw up a plan for the future of the lookout and bring it back to the judge for consideration.
Advocates for preserving the lookout called Thursday’s decision a “ray of hope” but stressed that much is left to be worked out.
The 1933-vintage lookout, one of only a handful left in the region, has been at the center of lengthy legal wrangling over whether the Forest Service violated the federal Wilderness Act when it used a helicopter to make extensive repairs.
U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour in March ordered the lookout removed after a lawsuit brought by the Montana-based Wilderness Watch group. The Seattle-based judge found that the Forest Service had broken the law.
Both the Montana group and the Forest Service since have filed motions asking the courts to take another look at key parts of the decision.
Coughenour on Thursday denied Wilderness Watch’s request to toughen up the ruling.
The group disagreed with the court’s decision to give deference to the Forest Service’s belief that preserving historical use was “a valid goal of the Wilderness Act,” according to court papers.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, asked Coughenour to reconsider his order that the rebuilt lookout be removed.
The judge on Thursday wrote that a decision on the lookout’s fate remains “an important and difficult one,” and the Forest Service’s options are limited.
Still, he ruled that the Forest Service be “afforded the opportunity to determine how to move forward.”
The judge also stressed that the court still has found the lookout repairs were in violation of the law, and that he is not interested in any attempt by the Forest Service to engage in “rationalization of its actions.”
Folks who have stood in favor of preserving the lookout on Friday were poring over the decision and conferring with attorneys, said Scott Morris, acting president of the Darrington Historical Society.
The court had been unclear on how exactly the lookout would have to be taken down, he said.
“We’re glad that the judge granted the Forest Service its request to amend the decision,” he said. “This allows the agency to come up with a way to comply with the decision. And of course, the next question is, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ What we’re hopeful for ultimately is that the lookout gets to stay, but the devil has always been in the details regarding this judgment.”
There is no clear timeline for what happens next, said Brian Turner, an attorney representing National Trust for Historic Preservation, an advocacy group that has supported efforts to save the lookout.
Turner’s group believes that the two parties of the lawsuit could find a way to preserve the lookout while also respecting the values of the wilderness around it, he said.
“We see this really as a ray of hope for keeping the lookout in its original location,” he said.
Meanwhile, legislative efforts are under way to preserve the lookout as well.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., introduced legislation in June aimed at blocking removal of the lookout. People at Wilderness Watch have expressed concerns about the intent of the legislation.
The bill hasn’t seen much action, but hopes are high, Morris said Friday.
Green Mountain is a 6,500-foot peak in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area in the North Cascade Range, east of Darrington.
Calls to Wilderness Watch and the Darrington Ranger District were not returned Friday.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org