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

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Located deep in the western Cascades, Darrington is deluged with 80 inches of rain a year. In 2003, a record flood washed out the 100-year-old Suiattle River Road that connects the town to the Green Mountain lookout trail and 14 others; subsequent floods have also taken a toll. Reaching the lookout now requires a 13-mile hike or bike on road and another four miles on trail -- generally at least a two-day round trip. Two car campgrounds and a ranger station have been abandoned. Last fall, the Forest Service permanently closed the most popular portal to the Glacier Peak Wilderness after floods destroyed the road, a trail and hot springs. All told, washouts around Darrington have cut off vehicle access to 29 hiking trails to some of the region's iconic wild places.

Efforts to repair roads and trails have been contentious, however. Forest impacts and erosion into salmon streams have concerned environmentalists, as has the Forest Service's decision-making process. In one case in 2006, an Everett-based engineer named Bill Lider joined the Pilchuck Audubon Society and the North Cascades Conservation Council to appeal repairs on the popular Mountain Loop Byway, citing impacts to salmon. The plan was finally upheld after more than a year of delays, angering locals who depend on tourism.

Last April, the same parties sued to stop new repairs on the Suiattle Road, which they had also challenged in 2006. Early construction work had downed patches of old-growth forest -- habitat for the northern spotted owl and the threatened marbled murrelet -- and the plan could impact protected salmon runs, they argued. "I've seen so many bad projects over the years," says Lider. "It's time to draw the line and say no more."

The work had gone forward under a categorical exclusion filed by the Federal Highway Administration to bypass additional environmental review and public input. It was the same procedural shortcut used to restore the lookout; the ranger district maintains that using exclusions helps avoid unnecessary work and saves taxpayer dollars. The Suiattle project has since been halted for a full environmental assessment.

In December, the Forest Service closed yet another road due to flagging funding and erosion concerns. Now, there's no road access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness from the west side. The end result is a de facto expansion of the wilderness area -- a win for some advocates but difficult for Darrington. "Making money off of tourists  gets pretty tough when you have record floods," says Morris.

Beyond impacts to local businesses, the loss of access may also harm the broader cause of conserving wild land. "People have to be able to get in there to enjoy it if we are going to continue to garner support for the National Wilderness Preservation System," says John Miles, an environmental historian at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

The lookout lawsuit raises similarly difficult questions about how far environmentalists should go to enforce the elusive ideal of a wilderness "untrammeled by man." The Wilderness Act allows for "historical use," and the National Historic Preservation Act encourages agencies to maintain officially recognized structures. In 1984, the Washington State Wilderness Act expanded the Glacier Peak Wilderness to include the entire lookout site, seeking to "preserve scenic and historic resources." With support from the state historic preservation office, Forest Service officials believe they were in the right when they removed and reconstructed the teetering lookout using mostly original materials. But the legal terrain is ambiguous: A related court ruling held that "historical use" in wilderness applies only to natural features, not anything man-made.

The Forest Service's process also raised concerns. The restoration went forward under the original categorical exclusion used to permit the foundation repair, which did not mention removing the lookout. No public comments were taken on the new plan. Eight wilderness helicopter trips had been planned, but several dozen flights took place. Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas, who has challenged similar issues around the country, says the agency overstepped its bounds. "Part of what made the lookout historically significant was how it got there," he says. "Now, it's this modern building that was plopped there by a helicopter." He hopes the suit will return the mountain to its original state and thwart similar efforts elsewhere. "If we want wilderness," he says, "we've got to be willing to give something up."

The lookout conflict worries some environmentalists who must navigate local politics and build consensus to protect new acres. "Things that polarize local communities and embitter people are counterproductive," says Doug Scott, policy manager for the Pew Environment Group's Campaign for America's Wilderness, which helped craft key compromises to create the Wild Sky Wilderness south of Darrington in 2008. When a group with its own agenda drops in, "it can be very dispiriting to local coalitions who have tried hard to keep faith with all of the local stakeholders," he says. "At the very least, it's shortsighted."

Meanwhile, the lookout's supporters remain determined to save it. "It's not going to get torn down," says Leah Tyson, president of the local historical society. "We will fight them any way we can."