More on the Green Mountain Lookout

Here’s an opinion piece in the Everett Herald Net.

Now I will be the first to confess that I don’t know what side if any is “right” in this debate. However, there are a couple of themes that are found more widely in various discussions around the West.

First,

Defending against petty lawsuits will likely divert most of the Forest Service’s dwindling wilderness budget from the mountains to the courtroom.

and second,

We encourage Wilderness Watch to drop the lawsuit. We also encourage people to make your voices heard. Congressional representatives need to hear from the public why this lookout needs specific legislative protection from humorless people who would tear it down.

The themes that I hear are:
(1)Why this battle?: Local person to group- “Out of all the environmental issues in the world, especially given that you are not from our area, it’s not clear why you would pick this particular battle. What’s this really about? Can we talk? ”

(2) Why this tactic (litigation)?

a) If you choose litigation as a tactic, others can choose to try to get legislation (a la wolf, see Baucus quotes here). I would think that this is a necessary constitutional co-evolutionary trend, but how optimal for everyone concerned?

(b) Forest Service budgets are not going up- is its possible that other uses of FS funds (like wilderness rangers) may lead to more environmental protection than copying documents or other litigation activities? What are the environmental “opportunity costs” of choosing litigation as a tactic?

Below is the opinion piece in full.

Lookout belongs right where it is
By Leah Tyson

In response to a pending lawsuit by Wilderness Watch to force the U.S. Forest Service to take down the Green Mountain fire lookout, the Darrington Historical Society would like to explain why the lookout does, in truth, belong there.

Contrary to an opinion expressed in these pages several weeks ago by George Nickas, the executive director of the Montana-based Wilderness Watch, the fire lookout on Green Mountain is not a “new” lookout. It is not a “replica.”

It not only looks like the old lookout — it is the old lookout. We know this because the Darrington Historical Society, and many other local volunteers, participated in the restoration project, which started in the 1990s.

The lookout was carefully restored with at least 70 percent of its original materials from 1950 (when the 1933 lookout was fixed because of snow damage), and the project was originally completed onsite. The only substantially new aspect to the lookout is the foundation and catwalk, which were redesigned to meet modern safety codes. This is a standard legal requirement in historical restorations.

Unfortunately, the new foundation design failed, and engineers determined that the lookout might not survive the heavy snows of the coming winter. Faced with a difficult decision, Forest Service officials decided to save it by removing the lookout with a helicopter. With a better design for the foundation, the old lookout was hauled back up and secured to the peak.

Despite the overblown rhetoric of critics, this was not an “egregious” act. The Forest Service was caught between the dictates of the Wilderness Act on one side and, simultaneously, the National Historic Preservation Act, which required the agency to do its best to preserve the lookout because it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

The Wilderness Act is not as cut and dried as Wilderness Watch would have folks believe. It includes some administrative discretion for managing agencies. While Wilderness Watch certainly has the right to file suit, we question their judgment. The lawsuit is entirely out of proportion to the infraction of procedure they allege and to the aesthetic value that is supposedly harmed. Defending against petty lawsuits will likely divert most of the Forest Service’s dwindling wilderness budget from the mountains to the courtroom.

Very few fire lookouts remain. The Glacier Peak Wilderness is an area almost the size of Rhode Island. The 14-by-14-foot cabin on top of Green Mountain is dwarfed by the landscape, a blip on the radar, really. Staffing lookouts with volunteers has, in fact, helped preserve some fragile alpine areas.

If this lawsuit succeeds, it could create an interpretation of the rules so narrow as to force the loss of a few remaining historic lookouts across the Northwest. It could also be interpreted to prevent the repair of washed-out trails and bridges. This may seem extreme, but it is the stated intent on the Wilderness Watch website.

It is not necessarily the stated intent of the Wilderness Act, which recognizes that preserving the wilderness character of a place can include “recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historical use.”

The aesthetic Puritanism expressed by people who would tear down the Green Mountain lookout leads to spiritual satisfaction for a few at the exclusion of the many. We should acknowledge the reality of U.S. Navy jets running almost daily, low-altitude training sorties over the Glacier Peak Wilderness. In contrast, obsessing over tiny aesthetic complaints makes no sense.

We are not arguing for a return to the past, when fire lookouts dotted the backcountry and roads cut deep into the headwaters. We are simply calling for the maintenance of a historical icon that still has some life and lessons to pass on. For many of us, the rarity of such structures enhances appreciation of the enduring nature of wilderness.

We encourage Wilderness Watch to drop the lawsuit. We also encourage people to make your voices heard. Defending against petty lawsuits will likely divert most of the Forest Service’s dwindling wilderness budget from the mountains to the courtroom.

Defending against petty lawsuits will likely divert most of the Forest Service’s dwindling wilderness budget from the mountains to the courtroom.

19 Comments

  1. “Petty”?

    If this were petty, why would it deserve this double emphasis billing on the New Century of Forest Planning blog? Might it be about issues with the citizen defense of environmental laws which are in a perennial state of siege and subterfuge by those who find regulatory restraints on public lands unnecessary and burdensome?

    Such is certainly the case with the New Century of Forest Planning which chooses to highlight alleged pettiness to uphold its own anti-regulatory agenda.

    Besides, exactly what constitutes pettiness other than a subjectively framed opinion of Leah Tyson around her beliefs and values, in this case, clearly at odds with others who do not share such values and beliefs?

    Defending under constant attacks, the legal definition of Wilderness, according to my system of beliefs and values is hardly petty.

    A much more telling definition of pettiness arises with Leah Tyson’s charge which is qualified by concern over “the Forest Service’s dwindling wilderness budget”.

    For all the rhetorical handwringing spent on a supposedly “petty” affair, Leah Tyson’s energy could have been far more productively spent on arguing to restore “the Forest Service’s dwindling… budget”.

    But the failure to argue on behalf of restoring the Forest Service budget, goes hand in hand with finding fault with those citizens who rise to the defense of legal definitions of Wilderness and case law which will either diminish or uphold those definitions.

    Thanks Sharon, for providing further highlights of this alleged egregious pettiness, and though I have not searched, here’s a quick question maybe you could answer best:

    Have you posted any articles critical of the steady (and hardly petty) defunding of the United States Forest Service budget, and the resulting predicament this imposes on the management and enforcement activities upholding environmental laws on public lands?

    Thanks in advance for your answer.

    • Have you posted any articles critical of the steady (and hardly petty) defunding of the United States Forest Service budget, and the resulting predicament this imposes on the management and enforcement activities upholding environmental laws on public lands?

      One of the unfortunate consequences of Wilderness designation is the tendency of appropriators in Congress and allocators in the Forest Service to view Wilderness acres as cheaper to administer (they can’t be “managed”) and consequently needing less dollars. A national forest with an increased proportion of Wilderness often sees it’s budget reduced. I wonder how much effort Wilderness Watch puts into educating about and working against this trend? In my mind this is a much bigger threat than a “rebuilt” lookout tower. But then, while I believe that many areas need special protections, I’m not a Wilderness purist; the whole concept seems so artificial and somewhat arbitrary. Having spent a week attending the National Wilderness Stewardship training course conducted by the Carhart Center, I think I understand the Act pretty well, but I also think that implementation is not as black and white as some seem to believe.

      • All excellent points Jim.

        Of course it is not just the Forest Service whose operational capacity is being systematically eviscerated, this is a selectively applied rationale following Grover Norquist’s famous statement speaking for some of the most powerful lobbying interests in DC–
        the National Chamber of Commerce,

        “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”

        This of course, intentionally sets the stage for privatization via outsourcing of governmental functions to corporate “partners” under the notion that corporate “efficiencies” are superior to governmental models. In some cases, this of course can be proven on a balance sheet, but in reality it assumes the interests of stockholders are identical to the interests of citizens.

        This is clearly not so.

        Unless the public educates itself around the neoliberal model already imposed upon third world countries, and now being imposed on America, there will be no reversal of this collapse of the middle class.

        Unless the public demands restoration of these minimum standards and expectations of governmental functions and competence, we will all get the government (or lack thereof) we deserve.

        • Wow, David, I hope you are not accusing me of having an “anti-regulatory” agenda! I spend most of my days at work on developing regulations right now, which would be difficult if I were anti-regulatory.

          But as Dave points out, the point of this blog is that it doesn’t have a point other than hearing what other people think- across a wide spectrum- in a respectful environment.

          Anyone’s behavior and activities- the press, industry, academia, conservation groups, agencies, politicians, are all equally fair game for questions and debate on this blog.

          • Sharon, there’s nothing unusual nor mutually exclusive about drafters of regulations who are also on record opposing existing regulations.

            Mark Rey comes to mind, for instance.

            I’ll pass — on enumerating the many reproachful references you’ve made to existing environmental legislation such as ESA, NFMA, NEPA– or the double posted articles such as this one, critical of the “petty” defense of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

            Perhaps, in aggregate, they do not represent a pattern I observe of your expressed antipathy towards the laws as they stand, or those citizens who have the temerity to rise in their defense.

            My interpretation of your comments suggest otherwise, though I’ll be the first to admit I’ve missed many nuanced points before.

            I suppose these events could also be merely coincidental, and that I am mistaken. For that, I apologize, and ask clarification from you, because up to this point, I am completely befuddled as to how you can weigh-in on the sundry articles you’ve posted and the reader not get left with the impression you harbor an active dislike for bedrock environmental legislation such as NEPA, characterized by many legal scholars as the “Magna Carta of environmental law”, and representing the gold standard by which many other countries aspire to.

            Again, I ask:
            Have you posted any articles critical of the steady (and hardly petty) defunding of the United States Forest Service budget, and the resulting predicament this imposes on the management and enforcement activities upholding environmental laws on public lands?

            • I am a fan of NEPA, but I think we need to carefully weigh the investments in analysis compared to real work with the land. Especially when the force driving us to deeper levels of analysis is that fundamentally people disagree with the projects. For example, we can analyze the heck out of carbon in WUI fuel treatments but is that the best use of taxpayer funds? Three more paragraphs or pages of analysis, or running a model (or six), or 17 or 253 journal citations is not going to change people’s minds.

              How many beaver could we introduce with those same funds? How many streams could be restored and fish passages reconnected?

              About five posts below in this blog, here, I asked these questions:

              “What do you think keeps the FS from getting enough recreation funds?

              Why don’t recreation groups get together and lobby Congress for enough funds?”

              I could criticize Congress, but it might be more productive to ask why our lobbying efforts are ineffective and attempt to correct that. It may be a Forest Service cultural thing but I’m not used to criticizing without proposing solutions- this time I went directly to solutions.

        • David says, in #3,

          Unless the public educates itself around the neoliberal model already imposed upon third world countries, and now being imposed on America, there will be no reversal of this collapse of the middle class.

          Unless the public demands restoration of these minimum standards and expectations of governmental functions and competence, we will all get the government (or lack thereof) we deserve.

          I wonder how many readers of NCFP have ever heard of “neoliberalism?” The whole idea agenda worries both David and I, yet can gain little traction in public discourse. Neoliberalism, Wikipedia link

          Neoliberalism describes a market-driven[1] approach to economic and social policy based on neoclassical theories of economics that stresses the efficiency of private enterprise, liberalized trade and relatively open markets, and therefore seeks to maximize the role of the private sector in determining the political and economic priorities of the state.

          The term “neoliberalism” has also come into wide use in cultural studies to describe an internationally prevailing ideological paradigm that leads to social, cultural, and political practices and policies that use the language of markets, efficiency, consumer choice, transactional thinking and individual autonomy to shift risk from governments and corporations onto individuals and to extend this kind of market logic into the realm of social and affective relationships [2]. … [footnotes in original]

          • The neoliberal project is at the heart of our present predicament which Sharon links us to and her quote pointing out, “… the benefits of concessionaires, especially in this economic environment.”

            “In this economic environment”, indeed. Aye, and there’s the rub.

            The neoliberal project created the problem through regressive tax policies, “big guv-mint” rhetoric, deregulation, and regulatory capture, precipitating the protracted recession we are currently in the midst of, and

            hark(!) Sharon’s observed “benefits” of privatization gets advanced as the solution which just happens to be more corporate outsourcing of governmental functions “in this economic environment” as Sharon describes it.

            One does not cure addictive disease by lauding its benefits and prescribing more of the addictive agent.

            • Could a Neo-Independent conspriracy be right around the corner, as well?!? Ohhhh, perish the thought that splits within political parties could “ruin” the political landscape!! I particularly enjoy watching the splintering of both Republican and Democrat “elites” from their rank and file. Thoroughly amusing!

              The Forest Service will continue what it has done for decades… wander aimlessly, with no consistent direction.

            • Just to be clear, I was quoting them about the benefits of concessionaires (there have to be benefits). Personally, I don’t think the FS should use concessionaires for campgrounds and visitor facilities if we can avoid it. For a reason about the importance of presence, about heart, and about relationships, not about neoliberalism. I have a blog post in the works about that called “the tale of two trailheads.”

    • David,

      You say,

      New Century of Forest Planning (NCFP)… chooses to highlight alleged pettiness to uphold its own anti-regulatory agenda.

      David, I think you misstate the purpose/function of this blog. Like any other multi-author blog, NCFP doesn’t “choose” or even support an “anti-regulatory agenda.” Each author posts up what they find relevant to policy/practice/culture discussions on the blog. I find the commentary as interesting as the “posts.”

      As the author of the second highest number of posts on this blog (I’m guessing) I certainly do not support an “anti-regulatory agenda.” And, as authors, we certainly don’t collaborate on which posts to publish.

      PS. I do like your idea of posting on the “steady … defunding of the United States Forest Service budget.”

      PSS. My main regret regarding this blog, is that more people are not “authors” (also that some of those who used to be authors seem to have fallen by the wayside), and that more people aren’t choosing to comment.

        • Yep.. I understand well the “late night” posting problem. I sometimes wonder why I bother to post things at all, knowing that I’ll inevitably screw up something: a rhetoric, syntax, meaning, etc. Even here, I decided (since it is not "late night") to look up the word rhetoric (Wikipedia), before hitting the “submit reply” button. I feel sheepish too many times in developing posts and replies, even with my added advantage over you: authors can edit their “replies.” It would be nice if WordPress (and other blogging software) allowed folks to edit their replies for, say, 30 minutes, so that those who reply wouldn’t feel so foolish when they screw something up. Too many times (on other blogs) I have hit the “submit” button and immediately seen my foolishness — once it was already published.

  2. Sharon says, in #6,

    [W]e need to carefully weigh the investments in analysis compared to real work with the land. Especially when the force driving us to deeper levels of analysis is that fundamentally people disagree with the projects. … [W]e can analyze the heck out of [many things, and cite science ad nauseam, but that] is not going to change people’s minds.

    How many beaver could we introduce with those same funds? How many streams could be restored and fish passages reconnected?

    The problem, as always, is that “We the People” don’t agree on either the philosophical or the legal/administrative frames on which Forest Service projects, programs, and policy are based. Often project-based appeals and litigation are really attempts to challenge policy and programs where such challenges are only available via projects. In response, feeling miffed by what they perceive to be “frivolous appeals/lawsuits” the Forest Service attempts to play an administrative politics version of The Shell Game (Wiki link) by pointing up a scale, else down a scale to “categorically exclude” things from legal consideration.

    Part of the problem is a neglectful Congress, who have failed the people in Forest Service Administration oversight responsibilities—i.e. seldom revisiting, reframing the undergirding legislative charters and mandates, but instead contenting themselves in tweaking annual appropriations, often bestowing favor on “special interest” constituents. See, e.g. RW Behan’s Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Public Lands.

    Part of the problem is that the Forest Service views “procedural process” (e.g. CEQ and NEPA) as an annoyance, preferring project work as per Sharon’s comment—hiding behind what they consider to be “good projects on the ground”. The Forest Service has never understood/admitted that the “public interest” must be discovered via extended, often heated, public deliberation. And the Congress seems to have forgotten this too, to the extent they ever understood, or cared.

    Part of the problem is that the FS approach to NEPA compliance and to NFMA compliance, e.g. “Planning,” are deeply flawed and militate against public deliberation.

    The problem is exacerbated further in efforts like the “NFMA rule,” now under consideration, where many of the agency participants (likely others too) feel that there is no hope to improve the “rule” so they want to fix things in what they call “implementation.” Problem is that such will likely be attempted, once again, via FS Manual and Handbook rewrites, that always muddle-up, obfuscate, and overly complicate. Where is Occam’s razor when you need it? Worse, the FS always champions collaboration, yet they largely deny such in developing rules.

    • The problem is that “We The People” are so ignorant about forest realities. Just when I think people’s levels of understanding and progressiveness to accept the science are rising, I’ll see a partisan group response that misses on each and every issue.

      I was involved in a litigated salvage project, which involved new guidelines for cutting fire-damaged trees. In a previous court decision, the Forest Service was required to produce new guidelines, and this was the first use of them. In testimony, the opposition’s “expert” blathered on and on about his perception of the guidelines. In defense of the guidelines, the author, Sherrie Smith, told the court that the opposition’s “expert” clearly misunderstood the guidelines. In the end, the judge threw out the guidelines, saying that the public needs to be able to understand plans, rules and guidelines. And, yes, those guidelines were, indeed, confusing in practice, but conservative in predicting eventual mortality.

      How can forest science be simplified to allow the public to understand the science and the decisions based on it?

  3. Dave- I think we are once again discussing something along the concrete/abstract divide as I discussed on this blog here.

    For example, you said,

    Part of the problem is that the Forest Service views “procedural process” (e.g. CEQ and NEPA) as an annoyance, preferring project work as per Sharon’s comment—hiding behind what they consider to be “good projects on the ground”. The Forest Service has never understood/admitted that the “public interest” must be discovered via extended, often heated, public deliberation. And the Congress seems to have forgotten this too, to the extent they ever understood, or cared.

    First of all, there is no one “Forest Service”- people in the FS have a broad range of opinions on all things. I can only speak for myself. I like NEPA- I like disclosing environmental effects of things. But I am a realist. I know that a forest plan EIS done pre-bark beetle did not really disclose the cumulative effects because despite how hard they tried, they could not predict the future for 15 (or in this case more like 10) years.

    I know what I consider a “good” fuels treatment EA looks like.. enough to disclose the environmental effects. But like my fellow feds at the CEQ meeting we had on climate – we think that it makes sense to analyze the carbon effects of natural gas, say, in a broader policy- not every time someone proposes a pipeline or a surface use plan of operations.

    Similarly, if we had a CE for road decommissioning I would see that as good public policy. CEs are provided for in the CEQ NEPA regs. What we seem to be debating are “NEPA practice” questions (what discloses the information the public and the decision maker needs to know most effectively and at least taxpayer cost), rather than not liking NEPA.

    When you say the Forest Service does not collaborate when developing rules, I seem to remember a FACA committee associated with a particular rule, which seemed like a collaborative approach. It’s hard for some to look beyond partisan hype- but I am hoping we on this blog can see the beauty of ideas and processes clearly without the sludge of partisan-ship.

    • Sharon,

      When I talk about “the Forest Service” I am not talking about the fact that it is made up of individuals with individual opinions. I’m talking about what the agency does and about policy and practice that the agency follows. I stand by my earlier assertions (see #14) as to what the agency does. What I find unbelievable, expect that it happens everywhere in power-dominated cultures, is that Forest Service employees suffer quietly amid ever-more-silly policy and politics, pretty much biting their lips, or just becoming ever-more numbed by process overload, and bureaucratic silliness.

      What ever cover “good projects” may provide does not begin to address the problem of an agency that uses The Shell Game to avoid challenge. And yes, I agree that there are things that ought to be “categorically excluded” from, e.g. NEPA consideration. But that does not give the Forest Service or The Dept. of Agriculture license to widen the net to exclude things that don’t pass a “red face” test.

      Finally, in this day FACA committees do not measure-up with regard to public deliberation. That has been the main reason for my blogging this last two decades—to show a better way. Neither do I see much merit in all the money spent on “endless meetings” that the FS staged in the recent NFMA rule development (and not just this time around). Web 2.0 tools are widely available —in use here— so it is about time the FS moves beyond hiding behind FACA committees, RACs, and in-person meetings. That does not mean these are obsolete, just that public outreach needs to be extended. Finally “content analysis” needs to be rethought.

  4. “Could a Neo-Independent conspriracy be right around the corner, as well?!? Ohhhh, perish the thought that splits within political parties could “ruin” the political landscape!!”

    Larry, clearly, you don’t get it.

    • Yep, I have clearly been immunized, David. Luckily, the immunization works on both Party’s rhetoric! After a 25 year career in the Forest Service, I “get it” better than most. As a matter of fact, I got it long ago, and like measles, you become immune after “getting it”.

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