The U.S. Forest Service has been sued in federal district court in Seattle for preserving the historic Green Mountain Lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 for fire detection, the U.S. Army also used this iconic wood frame Lookout to spot enemy aircraft during World War II. In 1988, in recognition of both its architecture and its historical associations, the Lookout was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1984, 51 years after the Lookout was built, the Glacier Peak Wilderness was expanded to include it.
Since the Lookout is on a remote mountain peak, and subject to extreme weather conditions, maintenance was difficult, and the condition of the Lookout suffered. Dedicated volunteers repaired the lookout to the best of their ability, assisted in 1999 by a $50,000 matching grant from Save America’s Treasures. Eventually, however, the foundation became unstable, and major repair was needed. The Forest Service relied on an extraordinary outpouring of public support, including thousands of hours of volunteer labor, to painstakingly dismantle the historic structure and moved it offsite for repair. With the approval of the State Historic Preservation Office, the Green Mountain lookout was reconstructed in 2010 using a majority of original materials that were lovingly refurbished and rebuilt by the volunteers.
Wilderness Watch, a non-profit organization that monitors federal management activities in designated wilderness areas, viewed the repair work as illegal. In a blog post the group called the action an “egregious breach of wilderness ethics and law” and described the Forest Service action as “arrogan[t].” In late 2010, the group sued the U.S. Forest Service seeking a permanent injunction that would require the agency to remove the historic lookout entirely from the wilderness area. Wilderness Watch has taken the extreme position that all man-made structures should be removed from wilderness areas, regardless of their historic status.
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.
Brian Turner is the regional attorney for the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.