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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.