Historic lookout must stay

The federal Wilderness Act rightly takes a strict approach in the interest of wilderness protection. When an area is designated by Congress as wilderness, new construction and the use of mechanized vehicles are prohibited.

Strict policies can be applied, however, without becoming ridiculous. In the case of the historic Green Mountain Forest Fire Lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness east of Darrington, a judge’s order that the structure be removed crosses that line.

If necessary, Congress must act to prevent such a travesty.

The lookout has been in place since the summer of 1933, when a Civilian Conservation Corps crew scaled 6,500-foot Green Mountain to build it. It’s a structure of tremendous cultural and historical significance, and a destination for hikers trekking into the wilderness.

In an apparent effort to minimize human incursions, a Montana-based environmental group called Wilderness Watch sued the U.S. Forest Service, claiming work it had done to restore the aging lookout violated the Wilderness Act. In March, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour ruled in the group’s favor, ordering the Forest Service to remove the lookout.

That’s an extreme solution to an unusual case. It’s also unnecessary. Fears that allowing restoration of this historic structure will render the Wilderness Act useless, we think, are overblown. Congress can ensure that doesn’t happen by carefully amending the act to allow for very limited exceptions to restore such structures.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, thinks it can be done. If the Forest Service doesn’t appeal Coughenour’s ruling, he said he stands ready to act.

Larsen’s credentials on land preservation and wilderness designation are strong. Forcing removal of the Green Mountain lookout, however, makes no sense at all he said.

It is a very narrow reading of the Wilderness Act he added, one that could lead to people not being able to use wilderness areas at all.

Keeping people out is not the intent of the Wilderness Act. Having people enjoy wilderness areas raises awareness and appreciation for such lands. The National Historic Preservation Act and the Wilderness Act ought to be able to co-exist in cases like this.

That point was made well in the Snohomish County Council’s resolution last month calling on Congress to consider its own remedy: when such conflicts arise, it is in the public interest that our policymakers seek to harmonize those conflicts to the extent feasible to maximize the public good.

Gifford Pinchot, who under President Theodore Roosevelt was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, held that the agency’s mission was to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.

Carving out an exception for the Green Mountain lookout to live on meets that goal.

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