The logging town of Darrington, Wash., fights to save a fire lookout

  • Whitehorse Mountain towers over 6,000 feet above Darrington, Washington, where a struggling timber mill is still the major employer.

    Curtis Cronn
  • The Green Mountain fire lookout under reconstruction in 2009 on the edge of the 573,000-acre Glacier Peak Wilderness near Darrington, Washington.

    US Forest Service
 

On a blustery summer night, the Red Top Tavern in Darrington, Wash., is nearly empty. A neon Hamm's beer sign illuminates a picture of a local logger reclining in the bucket of an excavator with the caption "Redneck Hot Tub." Above it hangs a crosscut saw, just like in every bar in every other Northwest timber town. One block down, Skidder's Bar and Grill -- the only other tavern -- was recently boarded up.

Surrounded on three sides by federal land, Darrington was hit hard by the 1990s timber wars with environmentalists that, along with economic factors, curtailed logging in much of the Northwest. Only 75 miles from Seattle, its 1,350 residents had hoped to find a new economy in the hundreds of miles of trails that lace the surrounding mountains.

But the recreation boom hasn't happened, and a slew of complicating factors have frustrated locals. Washed-out roads hinder access to trails, and environmentalists have repeatedly challenged repairs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service  has closed other roads for budgetary and environmental reasons. In 2009, the town's only outdoor-supply store was shuttered.

Now, a lawsuit aimed at removing a locally beloved fire lookout -- a popular hiking destination atop Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness -- has escalated the already tense situation. Built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was used to spot forest fires for 50 years and keep watch for aerial invasions during World War II.

For decades, local volunteers helped maintain the weathering structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But after an attempt to repair the foundation failed, in 2002 the Forest Service dismantled the lookout and helicoptered it down to Darrington to be restored. Locals devoted hundreds of hours to the task, and in 2009, the agency flew it back to Green Mountain and reassembled it on new supports.

Then, a year later, a small, hard-line Montana group called Wilderness Watch sued, accusing the agency of sidestepping the public comment process and violating the Wilderness Act, which forbids new structures and motorized equipment in wilderness areas, with few exceptions. The federal court ruling is expected in the coming months.

"The lookout is symbolic for a lot of people," says Scott Morris, secretary of the local historical society and a self-described environmentalist who works as a watershed manager for the Sauk-Suiattle tribe. The attempt to raze the lookout, on top of the road-repair scuffles, looks to many residents like another step toward erasing them from the woods. "When the timber industry went down, the battle cry from the environmental movement and the Forest Service was that you'd be able to fall back on recreation," says Mayor Dan Rankin. "As we tried to, they closed more and more avenues in our area for recreation." Now, "some people want to take away the last hold of our heritage and our culture. It becomes personal real quick."

kevin geraghty
kevin geraghty
Jan 23, 2012 04:52 PM
Much of the controversy regarding the lookout centers on whether it is a "new" lookout or not. Are we looking at a restored lookout, or at a replica? Some pics from a trip we took to the lookout last summer can be seen at this URL: https://picasaweb.google.com/[…]/GreenMtn?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Everything one can see from the outside is new: the foundation, the decking, the clapboard, and the shutters. I expect there is something old in there somewhere, if one could get inside...but I think the lookout advocates are guilty of misrepresenting the fundamental newness of the structure.
Paul Wagner
Paul Wagner Subscriber
Jan 24, 2012 09:49 AM
A few selected photos do not a point make.
The lookout was carefully restored with at least 70 percent of its original materials. The only substantially new material is the foundation and the catwalk (as the photo shows) which were redisigned to meet modern safety codes. The lookout was restored to meet all criteria of historical preservation and is an offical historical building.
Extremists wish to rip pages from our history books and deny visitors the opportunity to wonder at what fortitude it took to occupy these lonely outposts and ride out lightning storms on a small stool with 4 glass insulators as electrical protection as they worked to locate fires and protect our forests.
Nathan Rice
Nathan Rice Subscriber
Jan 24, 2012 09:57 AM
Thanks for your comment, Kevin. According to the Forest Service website on the lookout, 75 percent of the original exterior siding was used in the restoration. The foundation and catwalk are new. More details are available there. (http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/home/?cid=STELPRDB5194244)
kevin geraghty
kevin geraghty
Jan 24, 2012 10:54 AM
They weren't "selected photos", Paul. I went up there out of curiosity, without any particular agenda except a good day out. Those are all the photos I took. And as I said the siding, and the shutters look unweathered and the wood growth rings, where visible through paint, look wide; not what one would expect of eighty-year old exterior wood in such a harsh environment, particularly given the maintenance shortcomings of the last thirty years.

I noticed also that pic of the lookout under construction, the second one accompanying this article, the framing (which I could not observe first hand) has the same bright new wood look as the decking. So the foundation, the decking, the framing, and some unspecified fraction of the shutters and siding are new . And the roof of course is new. Do the math. It's just not possible that 75% of this structure is old. Could be 25%; could be 5%.

They say love is blind; I suppose that applies to lookout love as well as the human-directed kind.:)

David M Keddell
David M Keddell
Jan 26, 2012 05:54 AM
When a structure is rehabbed, it will undobtedly take some time to "weather". Wilderness is truly in the eye of the beholder. In looking at this article my thought was that this structure was, until 1984 at least, in a non-wilderness area. Care was taken to re-establish a structure that could provide a "safe haven" for humans as they hike further into a more wilderness setting. No raods were improved though the damage from those structures seems to be the least of the concerns expressesd. I noted that this look out site was an extension of an existing wilderness area so I would only consider this area to be a buffer from the local human residents, not a wilderness. It is too close to town to really ever make this a "wildreness". In the lower 48, how many true wildernesses still exist? Where this look out location exists it is only the beginning of a near wilderness experience. As you would hike further into the wilds this could be looked at as a last human outpost while providing some sanctuary for those people who have the time and physical ability to attempt to see a wild area. It will be the only stop for many who cannot actually go further into the larger designated wilderness area. Many times people from urban areas start hikes such as these only to provide the opportunity for rescue efforts because they get in over their heads... So my real concern is why not have something where the roads etc are not being maintained established for the safety of those who dare to explore but are not as equiped to do as some others? The proposal is not for additional structures and I agree, there is no need for anything new. Wilderness in the lower 48 doesn't really exist the way the purists want and couldn't exist unless humans stayed out. The question should be is safety important, and does man exist in a wilderness setting? It should be looked at as a gate to the beyond but a shelter for those in need. Too bad all the legal expenses were not donated to removing the roads and restoring a natural balance where each individual ideal of what makes a wilderness can be realized. Obviously, what you see as wilderness is very different from an urban dweller.
Paul Wagner
Paul Wagner Subscriber
Jan 26, 2012 11:48 AM
All of the historical preservation organizations involved (national and state) did the math and concluded it was properly a restoration.
Ted Cook
Ted Cook
Jan 28, 2012 10:33 AM
What was the total helicopter bill that the US taxpayers paid to complete this project? I don't have a problem with the structure, or if it was done as a labor of love by donation, or the forest service helping a little bit, but it looks like hundreds of thousands of dollars which is bridge to nowhere crazy. Whomever approved this expenditure should get the axe.
BUDDY WASHINGTON
BUDDY WASHINGTON
Jan 28, 2012 03:36 PM
Let me start by stating some facts I’ve learned from my personal experiences on lookout towers. These truths may be obvious to all parties in this debate/discussion.
First lookout towers aren’t just relics of the past. They are still the very best way to detect wild fires at an early stage. The forest service has no current technology that can compete with a live person staffing a little house on top of a mountain. Having served as a volunteer lookout for the last two years, and will do so again this year and hopefully for many years to come, I know that lookouts do so much more than spot fires. They are life lines for fire crews and work teams who many times are in locations where there is no direct radio communication with their ranger station. In those instances, lookouts are used as repeater stations relaying messages to and from work crews. Also lookouts are real time weather stations providing instantaneous updates on wind speed, wind shifts, dew points, temperature, threatening weather that maybe approaching, and pointing out spot fires that can pop up as crews are busy working on the main blaze. This is life saving information. No other form of surveillance can supply this kind of real time information. Period!
Lookouts are also wonderful public relation tools for educating visitors who visit lookouts each year. You should see the faces of young and old alike. They light up with delight when they get a tour of the lookout and learn about the local area. It is one of the best parts of being a volunteer and helping those who come and visit learn and appreciate the beauty of or forest. I feel some of our future stewards of the forest will come from these visitors.
 I don’t know what brilliant bureaucrat after World War II decided that the forest service would be better served by using aircraft instead of lookouts. It must have looked good on paper. But aircraft just can’t do as good a job. They can’t remain on station. If a ranger district gets two over flights a day they’re lucky. Aircraft require two people - an observer and pilot. They produce noise and carbon pollution. Hey, I love airplanes and flying. They most definitely have they’re place in protecting our forest but not as the primary means of initial fire detection.
What about satellite surveillance? It’s a myth the forest service has no satellite surveillance for detecting fires. What they do get from satellites is lighting strike information. This information only tells what area may have had a strike and approximately how many strikes there may have been. It can be hours, days, or weeks before smoke appears. An observer in a lookout can pin point the lighting strike areas and watch them day after day until the danger has past.
Because of budget cuts in the eighties and continuing through today, the forest service could not staff lookout towers with paid forest service personnel. So many ranger districts started looking for other ways to detect fires.
The only other way other than aircraft over flights is to use surveillance cameras. But again, cameras can’t do the job that a live person in a lookout does. Wind and tree movement causes these cameras to sometimes send false signals. A smoke may have been picked up by the camera but someone still must interpret the pictures being sent and they can’t do any of the things previously mentioned that a live observer in a lookout tower does. If you ask the ranger districts who have had to replace lookouts with cameras, most if not all, will tell you they would rather have their lookout towers manned.
Why post all of this just to make a comment on the Green Mountain Lookout controversy? Because most people don’t know how important lookouts are to the well being of our forest. Green Mountain Lookout is back where it should be located. It should be staffed with volunteers so other Americans can experience the wonder, beauty, and pride of helping take care of our forest. The law suit that Wilderness Watch has brought against the forest service is just wrong. It forces the forest service to waste tax payer money that could be put to much better use. Green Mountain Lookout was on the mountain long before there ever was a declared wilderness area. If the folks at Wilderness Watch have so much heart burn over the restoration of Green Mountain Lookout they should have voiced concern before the work was done. Instead they want the forest service to go now and destroy what the local community and what the vast majority of Americans would want as well. Green Mountain Lookout belongs to all Americans as do all lookouts and wilderness areas ever where. They’re not the sole domain of Wilderness Watch. So with that in mind I ask Wilderness Watch to drop this law suit and fight better battles in the future.
As stewards of this planet, one of the best things we have done is to have put little houses on mountain tops. Silent sentinels, faithful, watchful over our loved and cherished forest, our land. After nearly a century of service, let us not abandon them now. With the escalating growth of the human species, we need these little houses more than ever.
Ending on a personal note lookouts take nothing from the esthetics of the forest which they protect. The woodland creatures who inhabit the mountain become friends with the towers and the people who staff them. One day Green Mountain wilderness will have a fire and if Green Mountain Lookout is not there to sound the alarm it can and will get out of control. The beauty of Green Mountain wilderness will be reduced to a blackened wasteland. Of the woodland creatures who call the wilderness home, the few who survive will have no home and the wilderness will be lost for generations.
Robert Burrows
Robert Burrows
Jan 30, 2012 09:26 PM
This is a sad story. Designated Wilderness and fire lookouts are both wonderful creations of American government and culture. Who can say which way the courts will rule, but historically it is in favor of Wilderness when an agency makes too much of an incursion on wilderness character. The tragedy that I see here is that the Forest Service planners bypassed the public process. They bypassed the process that allows the people to speak up about their Wilderness and how work is accomplished in it.

One has to wonder if they thought they "could get away with" a categorical exclusion (CE) or if what they thought they were doing wouldn't be controversial, but their mistake is glaringly apparent now.

In the PNW at least, some of the Forest Service's Wilderness policies are so strict that they won't use a chainsaw for trail work (which is one reason why the trails in the Glacier Peak Wilderness are in such terrible shape). Given that it is pretty stunning they thought the could use the CE for such intensive helicopter work for restoration of the lookout...but then the precedent has definitely been set in other agencies.
Jeremy Boak
Jeremy Boak Subscriber
Jan 31, 2012 02:32 PM
The Green Mountain Lookout provided great views of my Geology Masters thesis area around Mount Chaval. I am sad to hear its days might be numbered.
Rod Farlee
Rod Farlee Subscriber
Jan 31, 2012 06:06 PM
In answer to Ted Cook's question "What was the total helicopter bill that the US taxpayers paid to complete this project?" Answer: Zero.

This was paid for as part of a 2005 Washington State NOVA grant of $54,000. That grant was less than 1% of the $6 million per year state NOVA program, which itself is less than 1% of the state gasoline tax revenue which was devoted by state voters to this program. That grant was fully matched by local grants for materials and by the labor of over 100 volunteers who participated in this project.