Green Mountain Lookout Revisited, But Not For Long

Last July, we blogged about a lawsuit filed against the Forest Service challenging its reconstruction of the Green Mountain lookout within Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.

A week ago, federal district judge John Coughenour ordered the Forest Service to remove the lookout. It wasn’t a particularly close call either: “The Forest Service erred egregiously by not conducting the required necessity analysis before embarking on such an aggressive course of action,” the judge wrote regarding the Forest Service’s decision “to fully disassemble the lookout, transport the pieces off-site by helicopter, construct a new foundation on site, fly new and restored lookout pieces back in to the site, and reassemble the lookout.”

The judge was unpersuaded that the National Historic Preservation Act was relevant, even though the lookout is on the national registry. He concluded the NHPA imposes procedural, not substantive, duties on the Forest Service and, thus, could not trump the Wilderness Act’s substantive preservation mandate.

However, he did find that “historical use” is a valid management goal under the Wilderness Act. Continuing the line of reasoning first adopted in FSEEE’s High Sierra Hikers case, he faulted the Forest Service for failing to assess whether maintaining the lookout in the wilderness and using helicopters to do so, were necessary to realize the lookout’s historical virtues. For example, he pointed to other historic lookouts that had been preserved by removing them from the wilderness and rebuilding them at ranger stations as visitor interpretative facilities.

3 thoughts on “Green Mountain Lookout Revisited, But Not For Long”

  1. Here’s Wilderness Watch’s press release….


    Missoula, MT – On March 27th, Federal District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle ruled in favor of wilderness conditions in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington State and ordered the U.S. Forest Service to remove its reconstructed lookout from Green Mountain. Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization, filed the lawsuit against the agency in 2010.

    Wilderness Watch filed the case alleging the Forest Service had violated the 1964 Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by reconstructing the long-abandoned lookout, and by using helicopters to haul out the old building and haul in the new one. The project was done without public notice or environmental review as required by NEPA. The judge agreed with Wilderness Watch on every major point of contention in the suit.

    “The record here establishes that the presence of the Green Mountain lookout detrimentally impacts on the wilderness character of the Glacier Peak Wilderness,” wrote the judge in his carefully considered 25-page opinion. “In addition to finding that the Forest Service violated the substantive provisions of the Wilderness Act, the Court further finds that the Forest Service violated NEPA’s procedural requirements.”

    Bernie Smith, a former resource assistant and wilderness steward overseeing the Glacier Peak Wilderness, called the decision a “bittersweet victory.” “On one hand the judgment clearly states the Forest Service erred in its management of the Glacier Peak Wilderness by building permanent structure using mechanical transport. Along with many recent similar judgments, it should help the Forest Service properly management wilderness in the future,” said Smith. “The bitter side is that the Forest Service completely failed in its wilderness stewardship responsibilities and the agency misled volunteers and the community of Darrington by ignoring its responsibilities to protect wilderness. The Forest Service through all of this has shown a disconcerting ignorance of or distain for its wilderness management responsibilities.”

    One of the key issues involved with this case revolved around historic preservation of the lookout versus the Wilderness Act’s mandate to preserve wilderness character. The Forest Service alleged that its directives for the preservation of historic structures under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) require it to ignore the Wilderness Act’s mandate. Judge Coughenour, citing numerous legal precedents and the plain language of the Wilderness Act, repudiated the agency’s contention on this point.

    “The Forest Service asked the Court to adopt an interpretation of the Wilderness Act that would have left Wilderness extremely vulnerable to all sorts of developments and motorized use,” stated George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “Fortunately for Wilderness’ sake, the judge rejected their arguments.”

    “Agencies like the Forest Service and National Park Service often erroneously claim that the NHPA requires them to save or rebuild structures in Wilderness,” continued Nickas. “But the judge got it right in this case — the Wilderness Act’s requirements to preserve wilderness character trump the more general goals for historic preservation under NHPA.”

    In addition to violating the Wilderness Act’s prohibitions on structures and installations, the judge also ruled that the Forest Service had failed to make a finding that the reconstructed lookout was “necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the area” as Wilderness under the 1964 law. “The Forest Service erred egregiously by not conducting the required necessity analysis before embarking on such an aggressive course of action,” the judge wrote.

    Judge Coughenour granted Wilderness Watch’s request for an injunction against the Forest Service and ordered the agency to remove the new structure from Green Mountain.

  2. I thought that this piece from HCN was good, but didn’t have time to post it at the time..

    A fire lookout in a wilderness speaks of our past

    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.


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