DARRINGTON — A Montana-based watchdog group is suing the U.S. Forest Service and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Supervisor Rob Iwamoto.
Wilderness Watch alleges that, under Iwamoto’s direction, the Forest Service violated the federal Wilderness Act and National Environmental Pol
icy Act when it built a new lookout atop Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area east of Darrington.
The lawsuit has angered regional hiking groups whose members have helped maintain mountain lookouts throughout northwest Washington.
The new $50,000 lookout, which incorporated much of the original lookout’s materials, has been a destination for hikers for decades and is used for wilderness management. It replaced an old fire lookout built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Wilderness Watch executive director George Nickas contends that the federal law doesn’t provide for construction in the wilderness except for use in managing the area. The use of a helicopter and power tools in construction also violated the act, Nickas said.
In addition, the suit says that environmental policy was violated because the Forest Service did not prepare an analysis of the effects of constructing a new lookout.
Wilderness Watch wants the Forest Service to take down the new lookout at Green Mountain and pay the watchdog group attorney fees and its costs.
Back-country hiker and Everett Mountaineers Club member Arthur Wright believes the lawsuit is “a travesty.”
“The suit is a way for Wilderness Watch to raise money. I have helped forest crews work on trails and maintain lookouts. I would trust the forest professionals who live and work here much more than I ever would somebody in an office in Missoula,” said Wright of Lynnwood. “The new building looks substantially like the old one. There is history there at Green Mountain.”
Longtime Glacier Peak Wilderness volunteers Mike and Ruth Hardy of south King County believe the suit threatens the work of those trying to preserve the history of the old fire lookouts. Scott Morris, a member of the Darrington Historical Society, agrees, noting that lookouts are among the historical icons of the region.
“I am an advocate of the wilderness and know it perhaps better than most. I could sympathize with Wilderness Watch if every mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness were somehow threatened,” Morris said. “The purist zealotry of this group is going to harm appreciation of the wilderness. Shall we not walk in the wilderness anymore?”
“If this is the biggest threat to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, we’re doing OK,” Morris said.
Forest Service personnel say they are not allowed to talk about the lawsuit.
Darrington Ranger District wilderness and trails coordinator Gary Paull said the Green Mountain Lookout is used by paid staff and volunteers to manage the wilderness and make sure that no one is committing violations of the wilderness act. While the lookout has not been used for fire detection since the late 1980s, volunteers often are able to report lightning strikes from the lookout and help cut down on aerial fire detection above Glacier, Paull said.
Green Mountain has been a radio-relay position for restoration crews working to repair trails in the national forest. It also has played a recreation function, as a place for hikers to stop.
The lookout is on the west side of the 573,00-acre Glacier Peak Wilderness.
The old lookout was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and, as it began to fall apart and come off its foundation, restoration efforts followed. Record snowfall in 2002 and major flooding in 2003 slowed down restoration efforts. In 2009, with the help of a state recreation grant, the Forest Service rebuilt the lookout.
When the Forest Service got complaints about helicopters flying in supplies to the mountain top, pack horses were used. But because many of the trails leading to the lookout were not restored to handle horses, two of the animals were injured and had to be shot.
“The helicopters impacted the wilderness less than the horses,” said Wright, the Lynnwood hiker.
At his Missoula office, Nickas said the lawsuit is simply a matter of protecting the integrity of the wilderness system.
“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. “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.”
The Wilderness Watch is being represented in federal court in Seattle by attorney Peter Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center of Eugene, Ore. Brian Kipnis in Seattle is the federal Department of Justice lawyer on the case.
On the Web
More information about the Green Mountain Lookout is at www.fs.usda.gov.
Wilderness Watch: www.wildernesswatch.org.
The NWHikers.net discussion forum is at www.nwhikers.net/forums.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.