A fire lookout in a wilderness speaks of our past

  • Ana Maria Spagna

 

If monster mansions in Jackson, Wyo., or Sun Valley, Idaho, can boast million-dollar views, what's a historic cabin in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness worth? From this cabin that used to be a wildfire lookout, you can see a sea of summits, glaciers, a volcano and hidden lakes mostly surrounded by uncut forests.

Green Mountain Lookout, a historic 14-by-14-foot structure built in 1933, has gone through several stages of rehabilitation, and then, after a few missteps, a reconstruction. Now, suddenly, a group called Wilderness Watch wants to tear it down.

If you want to be contrary about this issue, there are plenty of arguments against fire lookouts.  There's the premise critics start with -- the mistaken idea decades ago that putting out all fires was noble and necessary.  Then there's the fact that wilderness is supposed to be untrammeled, and what's a flammable wooden and glass house on a mountaintop if not hardcore trammeling?  And to be honest -- as someone who worked in the woods -- I don't feel called upon to revere the various writers and poets who were paid to sit and scribble in some of these historic lookouts.

Still, Green Mountain Lookout takes my breath away. I don't idolize the (mostly) men who spent their summers sitting inside, but I am awed by the people who built the lookouts.  Often they were Civilian Conservation Corps members or local packers or trail workers, poorly paid and outfitted.  Always they were hardy and courageous, skilled and earnest, and wowed -- I'm guessing now -- by the luck that landed them in these unspeakably lovely places.

I make this guess, in part, because I have friends who helped rebuild Green Mountain Lookout: not just the hewing and sawing and the careful salvage of shiplap siding, but the paper-pushing, the negotiating, the hoop-hopping required to make it happen.  I cannot bear to toss their good labors aside.

This is not to say that everything built must stay built.  The Elwha Dam is a case in point.  I'll be there cheering when it comes down.  The Green Mountain Lookout may, arguably, be doing little good, but it's also doing no harm.  It's not, for example, dooming an entire salmon run to extinction.  The lookout's only crimes are crimes against human sensibilities.

The basis for the Wilderness Watch lawsuit lies in helicopters.  Helicopters are, of course, officially forbidden in wilderness, though they are used to fight fires, for rescues and occasionally for trail construction -- or in this case, lookout reconstruction -- once the proper hoops have been hopped.  The gray area is troublesome, sure. But is the offense of hearing a helicopter so heinous it merits a lawsuit?  Is it worse than the treatment of prisoners of war (or non-war)?  Or the poisoning of rivers?  Or the denial of climate change? Part of what galls me in this case is the sheer waste of activist energy.

But there's more.  If every human instinct has a rusty underbelly, the downside of wilderness protection is the desire to pretend we are the first humans to arrive in a pristine land.  As if Lewis and Clark did not depend on the kindness of Indians.  As if modern hikers do not depend on constructed roads, cleared trails, sturdy bridges.  Fooling ourselves into believing we're first seems like a kind of re-conquering, a dangerous game that allows our egos to grow big and unwieldy, the same egos that wreaked havoc in the first place.

I don't want to play pretend.   I'd rather honor the people who came before me.  I'd rather share their passion for grandeur. If I'm lucky enough to spend the night in a lookout that's meticulously maintained by volunteers or seasonal laborers, I'd rather appreciate the roof over my head as I look out at the roofless miles, and be grateful.

Wilderness is about humility.  Walk a dozen miles off a road and you're instantly at the mercy of predators and of the elements.  You can be humbled by nature, and also, I'd argue, by our own humanity.

Stand at Green Mountain Lookout and look to the southwest.  You can see the scars of clear-cuts and the stretch of highway that leads to shopping malls and parking lots and paved-over wetlands.   Humanity is responsible for both clear-cuts and the Wilderness Act, and even for a few lines of poetry that have transcended geography and generation.

Among the best things wilderness can do is make us realize that what we do counts. Some of it is marvelous, some of it catastrophic.  Fire lookouts sit smack on the divide.  Tearing down Green Mountain Lookout won't erase that.

Ana Maria Spagna is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in Stehekin, Washington.

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