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."

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