WILDERNESS:

Congress leaps into legal battle over historic mountain lookout

By June 2002, the historic Green Mountain Lookout in Washington's North Cascades was leaning badly from heavy snows and was at risk of slipping off the mountain.

Significant repairs would be needed to save the historic structure built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps to monitor wildfires. It later served as a lookout for aircraft during World War II.

The Forest Service disassembled the 14-by-14-foot shed, numbered each piece and flew them by helicopter down the 6,500-foot mountain. Several years and 67 or so helicopter trips later, the lookout was reassembled and reopened to the public.

But now the Forest Service plans to remove the Green Mountain Lookout again. This time, permanently.

The lookout -- according to a federal judge -- was repaired illegally in a designated wilderness, where permanent structures and motorized equipment are prohibited.

So by next summer, helicopters will again flutter over the Glacier Peaks wilderness to haul the structure to a new location at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $100,000.

But not if Congress has a say.

While lawmakers rarely agree on wilderness issues, a bill to prevent the lookout's removal has attracted support from some strange bedfellows, worrying some stalwart wilderness advocates.

At a hearing this week, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) -- chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation -- said H.R. 908 by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) "brings joy to this old history teacher's heart."

That wouldn't have been so strange if the bill weren't also endorsed by the Wilderness Society, a group that frequently spars with Bishop over protection of roadless areas. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the subcommittee's ranking member, said he, too, sees no harm in protecting the building.

The bill is also backed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Forest Fire Lookout Association, Snohomish County Council and Darrington Town Council.

Companion legislation has been introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), one of the chamber's most senior Democrats. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the bill next week.

Proponents say the lookout is important to the history of the Pacific Northwest and is a popular destination for hikers, particularly since it is only a few miles from the wilderness boundary.

"We are losing most of the CCC-era lookouts, and thus, Green Mountain Lookout merits an exemption," said Scott Morris, president of the Darrington Historical Society.

But the bill's momentum has worried some wilderness advocates who say the lookout violates both the spirit and letter of the Wilderness Act, which was signed in 1964 to preserve some lands in their untrammeled state.

"The Forest Service knowingly, willingly broke the law," said George Nickas, the executive director of the Missoula, Mont.-based Wilderness Watch, which sued the agency in 2010 to force the structure's removal. "Congress is basically rewarding it by approving its illegal structure."

'Forest Service erred egregiously'

The lookout offers sweeping views up the forested Suiattle River Valley and the flanks of Glacier Peak's volcanic ridges.

Of the more than 90 fire lookout towers built by the Forest Service in northwest Washington, Green Mountain is one of only 16 that remain.

In 1984, Congress expanded the Glacier Peak wilderness area to include the lookout, but it did not exempt the structure from the Wilderness Act's prohibitions against permanent structures or the use of motorized equipment or aircraft.

Shortly thereafter, the lookout was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, pitting federal statutes to preserve natural and architectural history against each other.

The Wilderness Act prevailed, ruled U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who last fall ordered the structure's removal but didn't set a deadline.

Coughenour said the Forest Service had failed to prove why more than 67 helicopter trips to repair the structure represented the minimum steps necessary to achieve the goals of the wilderness area, a requirement of the law.

"The Forest Service erred egregiously by not conducting the required necessity analysis before embarking on such an aggressive course of action," wrote Coughenour.

The Forest Service in May began an environmental impact statement to use heavy and medium lift helicopters to relocate the structure to Circle Peak, a nearby mountaintop in a roadless area adjacent to the wilderness.

While the agency plans to begin work in 2014, Wilderness Watch said the Forest Service should remove it this summer.

Proponents of the lookout say Congress must act quickly.

"The need for immediate action is great, because if the lookout is moved once, there's no moving it back," DelBene told the House subcommittee this week.

Bishop, who suggested the judge was "smoking something at the time" of his ruling, hopes the bill can be marked up before the August recess, a spokeswoman said.

Morris, of the historical society, said the bill would not set any precedents, a point that Nickas disputed.

"The exemption of Green Mountain lookout does not represent some kind of camel's nose in the tent that would somehow lead to resurrecting a bunch of long-dead lookouts in wilderness areas," Morris said. "Environmentalists are rolling their eyes at these guys who sued."

Rather, the historical society maintains Wilderness Watch is trying to use the district court's ruling to block the maintenance of historic structures in wilderness areas nationwide. "If we lose Green Mountain lookout, we may well expect to lose many others in the coming years," it said in a message to supporters.

'Full speed ahead'

But Wilderness Watch's Nickas said Coughenour's ruling was consistent with how other district courts have interpreted the Wilderness Act. He said the North Cascades Conservation Council also supports the lookout's removal.

The law, Coughenour wrote, provided for protection of land that would "retain its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation" and where "the imprint of man's work [would be] substantially unnoticeable."

After President Lyndon Johnson signed the wilderness law, Coughenour said the president declared, "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning."

According to Nickas, the last time Congress amended wilderness law to allow access to historic structures was 2004, when Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) inserted a rider in an appropriations bill to allow vehicular travel through Georgia's Cumberland Island to a historic mansion and other historic properties.

Around that same time, former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) pushed legislation to allow three outfitter camps to remain on a wild and scenic portion of the Salmon River inside the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness in Idaho, the second largest in the lower 48 states.

Nickas said the Forest Service is dragging its feet on the Green Mountain removal to buy time until the Washington state delegation "bails them out."

"It's indicative in how far the Forest Service has slipped in its wilderness stewardship responsibilities," he said.

Washington Rep. DelBene sees it another way. The Nature Conservancy, Back Country Horsemen of America, the Mountaineers and the conservation group Forterra also support keeping the lookout, she said, "in its rightful home" and also saving taxpayer money as the Forest Service copes with sequestration.

Her spokesman, Viet Shelton, said, "The Forest Service, whether we like it or not, is going full speed ahead."