Saving a historic chalet gets the hush-hush treatment

 

When I set out to report on the effort to save a historic chalet in the rugged backcountry of Washington’s Olympic National Park, I thought the toughest part would be the 13-mile hike.

What I found after six hours on the trail, however, was a bizarre blockade on press freedom, the likes of which I’d never experienced outside a military base or murder scene. True, saving the chalet was controversial; it was located in a wilderness area, and nothing motorized is supposed to happen there.

Yet the moving crew, made up of preservationists, house movers, two cooks and a pack animal driver, were happy to see I’d come all the way to their wilderness worksite. Miles from the nearest road and with limited tools and equipment at their disposal, the crew was accomplishing the herculean task of pushing the three-story Enchanted Valley Chalet away from the river that had undercut its foundation by nearly eight feet.

It had all the makings of a great story. Strangely, though, it was a story the Park Service wanted told through one person – a spokeswoman sent from park headquarters to handle the likes of me. 

Her first rule: No crossing a yellow caution tape stretched over a vast area several times larger than the chalet. The reason she gave was safety, though she and the cook crew moved about freely. Could I stand by the cooks as they fried up dinner, I asked. “No,” she answered. How’s about when all the work’s done? “No.” What if the project’s boss accompanies me? “No.” What if I put on a hard hat and you accompany me? “No.”

I wandered over to a mover petting pack animals outside the tape. As I snapped photos, we chitchatted about horses. The spokeswoman interrupted, telling me the press wasn’t allowed to speak with anyone associated with the project. 

I was dumbfounded. I asked her to repeat herself. 

“You’re in a restricted area,” she explained. 

“But we’re just talking about horses, and we’re outside the tape,” I said. “Did the restricted area just grow?”

No, she said, indicating there was a much larger, unmarked restricted area that limited not just access but speech. 

The next morning was to be the official “media day” -- the designated time in which newspapers and TV stations could witness the culmination of what had become a story of regional interest.

Our invitation mentioned only two restrictions on the press: No drones. No helicopters. I dutifully complied with both. 

The spokeswoman said several newspapers and TV stations had expressed serious interest in attending. I don’t especially like competition, but I looked forward to their presence. Blocking access to one reporter is certainly easier than blocking it from several. 

But I didn’t have to wait until morning to get the interviews I sought. The interviews came to me. The crew, I found, was more than willing to talk, so long as it was out of the view of three park staffers at the site. I spoke with them in hidden groves, shady spots along the river and on the trail, far from the worksite. 

One mover tracked me down at my campsite. He was proud of the work they were doing and wanted their story told. He ran me though the moving process, recounting the unique challenges of hauling heavy equipment and materials into the wilderness and pushing an 84-year-old building away from an unstable riverbank. 

The strange restrictions, he explained, were partly due to the park’s sensitivity about revealing just how far it had bent the rules of the Wilderness Act. The Park Service had obtained special permission to use helicopters and gas-powered jacks for the project.

The restrictions also follow a trend on the part of federal lands managers to closely manage or block access altogether. The most high-profile example of this is the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to formalize rules requiring journalists to ask permission and pay a fee before taking photos or video in wilderness areas. 

The mover and I spoke until after dark. He didn’t have a flashlight so I offered to guide him back with my headlamp. He refused, fearing that he’d be fired if he was spotted anywhere near me. 

In the morning, the official tour began. Two guys who produce a hiking blog showed up; I was the lone journalist.

But I already had my story. It just didn’t need to be this difficult, I thought as I set off for the hike back. The Park Service did not need to be so restrictive. The people doing the work did not need to be muzzled. And the 13-mile return hike on sore feet? Well, that just couldn’t be helped.

Tristan Baurick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is the public lands and outdoors reporter for the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Washington. He recently completed a Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellowship at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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