Group’s lawsuit threatens Wilderness Act it seeks to protect

More than 50 yeas ago, when the Wilderness Act of 1964 created the nation’s system of wilderness preservation, the intent was to recognize those backcountry areas as places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

For the most part that has meant, along with rules limiting the use of motorized equipment, that no permanent structures are allowed in wilderness areas. But that ethic has been complicated where wilderness designations have been placed on areas where fire lookouts, trail shelters and similar structures have existed for decades, often long before creation of the Wilderness Act itself.

That was the struggle that for several years pitted a Montana-based wilderness advocacy group against the National Forest Service and residents in the Darrington area who fought to save the historic Green Mountain fire lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Wilderness Watch sued in 2010 to have the lookout removed, following restoration work it claimed violated the act. Ultimately, it took an act of Congress in the weeks after the Oso landslide to save the structure.

Wilderness Watch has now set its attention against five structures within the wilderness areas of Olympic National Park, and has filed suit in a federal District Court in Tacoma, seeking removal of a cabin and four three-sided trail shelters in the park, again claiming that maintenance and restoration of the structures violates the act.

But the cabin and shelters were standing long before the creation of the Wilderness Act, and each carries some historical significance for the era in which it was built. One, the Canyon Creek Shelter, was built by crews with the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939 and overlooks Sol Duc Falls. It is the last such structure built by the CCC that remains in the park and was placed on the National Historic Register in 2007. Another, Botten Cabin, was built in 1928, features hand-crafted dovetail-notched corners and was added to the register in 2007 because of its architectural significance and its association with Olympic’s recreational history.

To protect the threatened structures, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and the Friends of Olympic National Park have joined with the National Parks Service as defendants against the Wilderness Watch suit. Oral arguments are expected later this summer.

“We are asking the court to affirm the National Park Service’s authority to maintain and manage Olympic’s historic structures in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act and the Wilderness Act,” said Brian Turner, senior field officer and an attorney with the national trust. “These two laws are in the public interest and should be used in concert to guide the stewardship of all wilderness areas to ensure that future generations are able to experience the wealth of America’s natural and historic treasures.”

Without a doubt, America’s wilderness areas need watchdogs, and Wilderness Watch has fulfilled that role on many occasions, but its campaign against trail shelters, cabins and lookouts, particularly those with historic value, is myopic and fails to, well, see the forest for the trees.

Last summer, Washington state members of Congress Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer introduced the Wild Olympics Act to add wilderness protection to more than 126,000 acres of National Forest land that surrounds Olympic National Park and also place 19 rivers and tributaries on the Olympic Peninsula in the nation’s Wild and Scenic River system.

Battles over rustic shelters only divert time and resources that instead could be used to lobby for passage of the Wild Olympics bill. More importantly, such rigid demands risk the loss of public support for the protections offered by the Wilderness Act.

In wilderness, man is a visitor who should not remain. But fewer squabbles over inconsequential issues will help ensure that the wilderness does remain.

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