Bill to protect lookout would chip away at wilderness protection

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen has introduced federal legislation to effectively over-rule a federal court decision to remove the illegally constructed Green Mountain Lookout near Darrington. Larsen’s actions are an unprecedented effort to strip away protections from a designated wilderness that will undoubtedly be cheered by those in Washington, D.C., who are itching to chip away at out nation’s wilderness law. The court’s clear and objective judgment that Larsen seeks to undo is entirely consistent with every Wilderness Act case in the 48-year history of that law. Readers can access the full ruling at The Forest Service violated several laws, culminating in the Court’s judgment that the lookout should be removed and relocated outside wilderness.

Here is why the federal court ordered the lookout removed from the wilderness:

The Forest Service violated the 1964 Wilderness Act by:

1. Completely removing and then constructing a new permanent structure that detrimentally affects wilderness character. This project was not just a minor building remodel, but a completely new structure with just token siding from the original structure. This fact is shown clearly in the accompanying photographs of new building foundations, posts, beams, joists, studs, railings, decking, and rafters. Buildings and structures, of course, are prohibited in wilderness by the Wilderness Act.

2. Use of helicopters to carry out its construction plan. The Forest Service went wild in allowing more than 65 helicopter flights into the wilderness to completely remove the existing lookout and to construct a new lookout. Helicopter use in wilderness is permitted only for emergencies or for unique and limited situations when the agency has gone through a process to determine that the helicopter is the minimum tool necessary to preserve the wilderness. The Forest Service did not bother to complete this mandated analysis and used helicopters and motorized equipment in a freewheeling manner.

The Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The court found the Forest Service “egregiously erred” by not completing an environmental impact statement or environmental analysis (EA); instead the work was carried out using the Categorical Exemption (CE) process that is reserved for the most minor, non-controversial projects. The CE process allowed the Forest Service to avoid public notification and prevented public input on this significant and controversial project. Had the Forest Service prepared an EA and notified the public rather than concealing the new construction in a wilderness area, it is quite possible a lawsuit could have been avoided.

Rhetoric has been a constant problem in working with the Green Mountain issue. The Forest Service likes to use the term “repair” for the extensive work done on this structure. We feel “reconstruction” or “new construction” is decidedly more appropriate. The judge simply stated that regardless of what you call it, “(t)he Forest Service went too far.”

You can make your own judgment by examining the accompanying photos. After the base collapsed in 2002, everything was removed from the site. A Park Service team brought in by the Forest Service excavated to bedrock, drilled into the bedrock for anchor pins, and poured massive concrete footings with embedded heavy steel saddles for the heavy timber legs. The summit outcrop was jack-hammered to remove rock to provide a more level base for the foundation. These photos show new material and super-sized components — steel plates, heavy bolts, and steel wall framing — designed to build a structure that can withstand the severe wilderness environment and illustrate man’s dominance over nature.

We believe the Forest Service should move the lookout to Darrington or another accessible site near town, where it can be enjoyed by many without compromising the Wilderness Act or the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The Columbia Breaks Fire Interpretive Center in Entiat, Wash., is a fine example of this. Entiat has relocated two historical lookouts to create their center, which has become a popular tourist attraction.

At a time when the Wilderness Act is under attack by the most anti-wilderness Congress in the nearly 50 years since the law was enacted, the last thing wilderness needs is Rep. Larsen’s bill setting a terrible precedent by authorizing incompatible activities in an existing wilderness. He would unwittingly be opening the floodgates to those wishing to undo the wilderness system piece by piece. Those who care about wilderness should encourage Rep. Larsen to reconsider his bill and work to move the lookout to a new location.

About the authors

Bill Lider of Lynnwood is a civil engineer. Dr. John Miles teaches at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Susan Morgan of Bellingham is a longtime wilderness activist. Bernie Smith of Portland is a retired Forest Service officer who formerly worked with the Glacier Peak Wilderness. All four are members of Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization with members in all 50 states.

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