Spagna on the Green Mountain Lookout: plus NTHP vs. WW

from High Country News here.
A fire lookout in a wilderness speaks of our past
Essay – July 07, 2011 by Ana Maria Spagna

If monster mansions in Jackson, Wyo., or Sun Valley, Idaho, can boast million-dollar views, what’s a historic cabin in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness worth? From this cabin that used to be a wildfire lookout, you can see a sea of summits, glaciers, a volcano and hidden lakes mostly surrounded by uncut forests.

Green Mountain Lookout, a historic 14-by-14-foot structure built in 1933, has gone through several stages of rehabilitation, and then, after a few missteps, a reconstruction. Now, suddenly, a group called Wilderness Watch wants to tear it down.

If you want to be contrary about this issue, there are plenty of arguments against fire lookouts. There’s the premise critics start with — the mistaken idea decades ago that putting out all fires was noble and necessary. Then there’s the fact that wilderness is supposed to be untrammeled, and what’s a flammable wooden and glass house on a mountaintop if not hardcore trammeling? And to be honest — as someone who worked in the woods — I don’t feel called upon to revere the various writers and poets who were paid to sit and scribble in some of these historic lookouts.

Still, Green Mountain Lookout takes my breath away. I don’t idolize the (mostly) men who spent their summers sitting inside, but I am awed by the people who built the lookouts. Often they were Civilian Conservation Corps members or local packers or trail workers, poorly paid and outfitted. Always they were hardy and courageous, skilled and earnest, and wowed — I’m guessing now — by the luck that landed them in these unspeakably lovely places.

I make this guess, in part, because I have friends who helped rebuild Green Mountain Lookout: not just the hewing and sawing and the careful salvage of shiplap siding, but the paper-pushing, the negotiating, the hoop-hopping required to make it happen. I cannot bear to toss their good labors aside.

This is not to say that everything built must stay built. The Elwha Dam is a case in point. I’ll be there cheering when it comes down. The Green Mountain Lookout may, arguably, be doing little good, but it’s also doing no harm. It’s not, for example, dooming an entire salmon run to extinction. The lookout’s only crimes are crimes against human sensibilities.

The basis for the Wilderness Watch lawsuit lies in helicopters. Helicopters are, of course, officially forbidden in wilderness, though they are used to fight fires, for rescues and occasionally for trail construction — or in this case, lookout reconstruction — once the proper hoops have been hopped. The gray area is troublesome, sure. But is the offense of hearing a helicopter so heinous it merits a lawsuit? Is it worse than the treatment of prisoners of war (or non-war)? Or the poisoning of rivers? Or the denial of climate change? Part of what galls me in this case is the sheer waste of activist energy.

But there’s more. If every human instinct has a rusty underbelly, the downside of wilderness protection is the desire to pretend we are the first humans to arrive in a pristine land. As if Lewis and Clark did not depend on the kindness of Indians. As if modern hikers do not depend on constructed roads, cleared trails, sturdy bridges. Fooling ourselves into believing we’re first seems like a kind of re-conquering, a dangerous game that allows our egos to grow big and unwieldy, the same egos that wreaked havoc in the first place.

I don’t want to play pretend. I’d rather honor the people who came before me. I’d rather share their passion for grandeur. If I’m lucky enough to spend the night in a lookout that’s meticulously maintained by volunteers or seasonal laborers, I’d rather appreciate the roof over my head as I look out at the roofless miles, and be grateful.

Wilderness is about humility. Walk a dozen miles off a road and you’re instantly at the mercy of predators and of the elements. You can be humbled by nature, and also, I’d argue, by our own humanity.

Stand at Green Mountain Lookout and look to the southwest. You can see the scars of clear-cuts and the stretch of highway that leads to shopping malls and parking lots and paved-over wetlands. Humanity is responsible for both clear-cuts and the Wilderness Act, and even for a few lines of poetry that have transcended geography and generation.

Among the best things wilderness can do is make us realize that what we do counts. Some of it is marvelous, some of it catastrophic. Fire lookouts sit smack on the divide. Tearing down Green Mountain Lookout won’t erase that.

Ana Maria Spagna is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed syndicate of High Country News ( She is a writer in Stehekin, Washington.
A commenter provided a link to the National Trust for Historic Preservation blog here.

The National Trust views the draconian remedy of removing the Green Mountain Lookout as one that would directly contradict the Forest Service’s obligations for the stewardship of historic resources under the National Historic Preservation Act. The Department of Justice, representing the Forest Service, authored an eloquent brief highlighting the stewardship responsibilities of the Forest Service for historic sites and structures in wilderness throughout the country, spanning more than 10,000 years of human history. The Forest Service made a compelling argument that the Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act are not mutually exclusive, and can indeed coexist as a set of principles that govern the agency’s management and stewardship of its historic properties.

The National Trust recently weighed in to support the Forest Service with an amicus curiae brief, together with a coalition including the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, the Darrington Historical Society, and the Forest Fire Lookout Association. In a motion requesting the court’s permission to file the amicus brief, the coalition expressed the concern that Wilderness Watch’s extreme position threatens protections for a range of other historic resources that predate wilderness designation, including Native American shrines and rock shelters, graveyards, lighthouses, pioneer cabins, as well as other fire lookouts.

On Tuesday, May 24, 2011, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Green Mountain Lookout was named to the state’s “Most Endangered Historic Properties” list. Stay tuned, as the battle to protect this unusual historic structure continues.

4 thoughts on “Spagna on the Green Mountain Lookout: plus NTHP vs. WW”

  1. Ana Maria Spagna’s piece, Cabin Fever, profoundly missed the mark. While the author may dislike Wilderness Watch’s work to protect the Glacier Peak Wilderness by taking the Forest Service to court over this unlawfully-built replica, her opinions and emotional attachment to the structure don’t change the facts surrounding its construction and history (or lack thereof).

    Putting aside for the moment the fact that the Wilderness Act prohibits the construction or reconstruction of non-essential buildings in Wilderness, the Forest Service dealt history the death-blow in 2002 when it tore down what remained of the original hand-built and mule-hauled Green Mountain lookout constructed in 1933. What’s now standing at the top of Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington is a new structure built in 2009 that was helicoptered in, not packed on mules; supported by concrete footings rather than native stones; assembled with power tools, not hand saws and hammers; and built without any public notice or environmental analysis. Its construction is a testament to modern engineering and transportation technology, rather than the pioneering wilderness skills by which the original lookout was hewn. To be sure, the agency re-used some of the original materials and the “cabin” looks like many old lookouts, but to equate the historic value of this new building to the original is akin to placing a grizzly from the taxidermist’s shop in the forest and pretending it to be the living, breathing, wilderness beast that once roamed there. No proper “hoops were hopped,” as Ms. Spagna likes to say, likely because the agency knew it would be breaking the law and preferred not to announce the fact in advance.

    Wilderness Watch’s lawsuit seeks to restore the wilderness character of the Glacier Peak Wilderness by returning Green Mountain to its natural condition. To claim the basis of the lawsuit is the use of helicopters disregards too many important facts. It’s not the “offense of hearing a helicopter,” that deserves a lawsuit, but rather the Forest Service’s disregard for the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and the resulting harm done to the Wilderness.

    As “increasing populations accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization” spread across the whole of North America, the Wilderness Act protects extraordinary places like the Glacier Peak Wilderness so future generations can know wild, unsettled and undeveloped lands.

  2. While I appreciate Ms. Spagna’s fervor for this lookout and defense of the effort of her friends in building a replica, two crucial pieces of information are entirely absent from her diatribe against Wilderness Watch.

    First, multiple times, including in the second sentence, Ms. Spagna implies that without the lookout, the views from Green Mountain would somehow be diminished. But the truth is, the view from Green Mountain would be even better without the lookout. Visitors could have a 360 degree panorama of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. No longer would they have to circumnavigate each of the lookouts four sides in order to get partial views. And visitors elsewhere in the wilderness would no longer be confronted by this structure swallowing the top of one of its most prominent natural features.

    Second, while faulting Wilderness Watch for seeking to enforce Congress’s direction in the Wilderness Act, absent is any discussion of why it came to this. How did the Forest Service authorize the re-construction of a structure that is clearly in violation of the Wilderness Act? Why did the agency not do the right thing in the first place? Apparently, the Forest Service disregarded the requirements of NEPA. By doing so, the agency also no doubt failed to solicit or ignored the comments of “activists” that would have informed the agency that their plan was illegal. So how can Ms. Spagna fault Wilderness Watch for its efforts to get our public servants to follow the law, rather than disregard it? In other words, who is really responsible for this “waste” of effort and energy?

    I do commend Ms. Spagna for noting the chief virtue of the Wilderness Act: humility. This is a message that should be broadcast at every opportunity in this day and age of over-consumption, irresponsibility, and lack of accountability. But I really wish she would have asked herself who was lacking in humility when it was decided to reconstruct the Green Mountain Lookout, unlawfully and without public involvement.

    And insofar as the government writing an “eloquent” brief, no amount of eloquence can render an unlawful act legal. Further, a review of that “eloquent” brief reviews that it is in fact, like Ms. Spagna’s commentary, a diatribe against those who have challenged the Forest Service to follow the law, and accordingly thin on substantive legal argument. Fortunately, in the courts the law usually prevails, and not simply those that yell the loudest and most shrill.

  3. New ‘lookout’ doesn’t belong there
    By George Nickas
    The Everett Herald
    Published: Saturday, January 29, 2011

    The Herald recently reported on Wilderness Watch’s lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service for building a new structure on Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Here’s why wilderness advocates believe the litigation was necessary and why it will succeed.

    The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The act also states, “there shall be … no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft … and no structure or installation” within wilderness.

    By building this new structure on Green Mountain and using helicopters to transport materials and workers to the site, the Forest Service’s actions have violated these fundamental tenets of wilderness law. By failing to notify the public of its plans or conduct any environmental review of the project, the Forest Service also violated the bedrock requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

    It is because of these violations of law and the need to restore the wilderness character of the Glacier Peak Wilderness that Wilderness Watch has taken the Forest Service to court.

    The Herald article quoted some supporters of the structure who suggested since the new building looks like the old one, it preserves the history of Green Mountain and the Forest Service should be allowed to reconstruct or replace it. This reasoning echoes those who wanted to reconstruct “historic” dams in the Emigrant Wilderness in the High Sierra, who supported replacing historic trail shelters with replica pre-fabs in the Olympic Wilderness, and who sought to continue vehicle tours to view historic structures on the eastern seaboard’s Cumberland Island Wilderness.

    Everybody has a reason for giving his or her particular interest precedence over the law and the restrictions imposed on others. But the Wilderness Act and its founders got it right. In the face of “increasing populations accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization” spread across the whole of North America, the Wilderness Act separates out extraordinary places like the Glacier Peak Wilderness, where future generations can experience wild, unsettled and undeveloped lands.

    The Forest Service argues that the lookout is used “to manage the wilderness and make sure that no one is committing violations of the wilderness act,” when in fact it’s the agency that has violated the law.

    The proper thing for the agency to do is take down the structure unlawfully built in the wilderness and use it to replace one of the dozens of other lookouts outside wilderness areas and in need of repair. The structure can be enjoyed and the wilderness preserved.

    In overturning the Park Service’s 2003 decision to replace two collapsed historic trail shelters in the Olympic Wilderness, federal Judge Franklin Burgess wrote, “Once the Olympic Wilderness was designated, a different perspective on the land is required. … The (shelters) have collapsed under the natural effects of weather and time, and to reconstruct the shelters and place the replicas on the sites of the original shelters by means of a helicopter is in direct contradiction of the mandate to preserve the wilderness character of the Olympic Wilderness.”

    He added that, rather than providing shelters, “a different ‘feeling’ of wilderness is sought to be preserved for future generations to enjoy, a place ‘where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man’ and which retains ‘its primitive character and influence, without permanent improvements.’”

    It is this perspective — a commitment to both the spirit and the letter of the Wilderness Act — that Wilderness Watch’s lawsuit seeks to uphold.


    George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national organization dedicated to the protection of the lands and waters in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

  4. So my point here is that historical preservation is a good, and that the concept of wilderness is a good. When we need to choose between goods, in my view, it is less about Theologies of Wilderness and more about reasonable people trying to work together in a specific place, with a specific issue, acknowledging and honoring the different points of view,

    I found her view

    The basis for the Wilderness Watch lawsuit lies in helicopters. Helicopters are, of course, officially forbidden in wilderness, though they are used to fight fires, for rescues and occasionally for trail construction — or in this case, lookout reconstruction — once the proper hoops have been hopped. The gray area is troublesome, sure. But is the offense of hearing a helicopter so heinous it merits a lawsuit? Is it worse than the treatment of prisoners of war (or non-war)? Or the poisoning of rivers? Or the denial of climate change?
    Part of what galls me in this case is the sheer waste of activist energy.

    both a critique of the wilderness purist view (helicopters are not OK, except when they are, and they aren’t for you) and a priorities question- of all the wilderness and environmental problems, why are you picking on us and our tiny lookout? Isn’t there some more important issue you could focus on?

    It’s easy to generate support against “industry” or “the FS”. Perhaps not so easy against the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Just sayin’.


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