Cabin fever

Does nothing manmade belong in wilderness?

| July 07, 2011

If 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? 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. 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. Washington State's 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. That gray area is troublesome, 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 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 ( She is a writer in Stehekin, Washington.

Comments (11)

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Okay, go up there and tear it down, Wilderness Watch. And pack every piece of that shameful man-made structure out on your back - don't burn it, don't use a helicopter. And, don't use any type of man-made made mechanized equipment (such as a drill, chainsaw, etc). Oh, and when you're done, please go back to Vermont and prescribe your land-use ethic to those on the east coast.

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Posted by RichardCranium on 07/19/2011 at 9:09 AM

If the fire lookout doesn't belong in the Wilderness - then perhaps neither do all the old harvest units(clear cuts) that Congress puts inside Wilderness boundaries. If your going to be purests then you can't pick and choose which human activity to accept in Wilderness.

To my friends in Wilderness Watch and the Wilderness Society I would gladly for go fire towers or Radio towers in Wilderness - but you have to also accept there will be no old harvest units either.

Posted by fgladics on 07/15/2011 at 11:09 AM

While I appreciate Ms. Spagna's fervor for this lookout and defense of the effort of her friends in building a replica, two crucial pieces of information are entirely absent from her diatribe against Wilderness Watch. As a service to its readers, I would hope that Writers on the Range would take more care in editing future contributions that are so critical of the efforts of citizen conservation groups.

First, multiple times, including in the second sentence, Ms. Spagna implies that without the lookout, the views from Green Mountain would somehow be diminished. But the truth is, the view from Green Mountain would be even better without the lookout. Visitors could have a 360 degree panorama of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. No longer would they have to circumnavigate each of the lookouts four sides in order to get partial views. And visitors elsewhere in the wilderness would no longer be confronted by this structure swallowing the top of one of its most prominent natural features.

Second, while faulting Wilderness Watch for seeking to enforce Congress's direction in the Wilderness Act, absent is any discussion of why it came to this. How did the Forest Service authorize the re-construction of a structure that is clearly in violation of the Wilderness Act? Why did the agency not do the right thing in the first place? Apparently, as discussed in a comment above, the Forest Service disregarded the requirements of NEPA. By doing so, the agency also no doubt failed to solicit or ignored the comments of "activists" that would have informed the agency that their plan was illegal. So how can Ms. Spagna fault Wilderness Watch for its efforts to get our public servants to follow the law, rather than disregard it? In other words, who is really responsible for this "waste" of effort and energy?

I do commend Ms. Spagna for noting the chief virtue of the Wilderness Act: humility. This is a message that should be broadcast at every opportunity in this day and age of over-consumption, irresponsibility, and lack of accountability. But I really wish she would have asked herself who was lacking in humility when it was decided to reconstruct the Green Mountain Lookout, unlawfully and without public involvement.

Posted by Jeff Kane on 07/13/2011 at 1:28 PM

you only read the last part. before being set out as a wilderness the parameters for setting out tracts of land are spelled out. You see there is a before section that pertains to the selection process. and those rules are not disposed of after the area is designated.

so please refer to the whole process. it will educate you

Posted by superior on 07/13/2011 at 9:51 AM

Anonymous-superior", I took your advice and read the Wilderness Act, and found it still says the opposite of what you claimed.

What I found is that the Wilderness Act explicitly prohibits structures and installations that are not essential to protecting Wilderness. Here's what it says: "except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area." Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act.

It should be immediately apparent that building "the cabin" on Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness violated several of these prohibitions.

George Nickas, Wilderness Watch

Posted by George Nickas on 07/12/2011 at 10:59 AM

read the wilderness act. it states that all existing structures be maintained and protected.

so the problem is that the FS did not follow the rules and allowed a structure to become unstable.

We have wilderness areas that are crisscrossed with roads, so what does roadless or wilderness really mean? Do you ever stop and think about how the Bob Marshall has become trampled and disfigured while following the guidelines of wilderness protection?

Posted by superior on 07/12/2011 at 9:29 AM

Ana Maria Spagna’s piece, Cabin Fever profoundly missed the mark. While the author may dislike Wilderness Watch’s work to protect the Glacier Peak Wilderness by taking the Forest Service to court over this unlawfully-built replica, her opinions and emotional attachment to the structure don’t change the facts surrounding its construction and history (or lack thereof).

Putting aside for the moment the fact that the Wilderness Act prohibits the construction or reconstruction of non-essential buildings in Wilderness, the Forest Service dealt history the death-blow in 2002 when it tore down what remained of the original hand-built and mule-hauled Green Mountain lookout constructed in 1933. What’s now standing at the top of Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington is a new structure built in 2009 that was helicoptered in, not packed on mules; supported by concrete footings rather than native stones; assembled with power tools, not hand saws and hammers; and built without any public notice or environmental analysis. Its construction is a testament to modern engineering and transportation technology, rather than the pioneering wilderness skills by which the original lookout was hewn. To be sure, the agency re-used some of the original materials and the “cabin” looks like many old lookouts, but to equate the historic value of this new building to the original is akin to placing a grizzly from the taxidermist’s shop in the forest and pretending it to be the living, breathing, wilderness beast that once roamed there. No proper “hoops were hopped,” as Ms. Spagna likes to say, likely because the agency knew it would be breaking the law and preferred not to announce the fact in advance.

Wilderness Watch’s lawsuit seeks to restore the wilderness character of the Glacier Peak Wilderness by returning Green Mountain to its natural condition. To claim the basis of the lawsuit is the use of helicopters disregards too many important facts. It’s not the “offense of hearing a helicopter,” that deserves a lawsuit, but rather the Forest Service’s disregard for the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and the resulting harm done to the Wilderness.

Everybody has a reason for giving his or her particular interest precedence over the law and the restrictions imposed on others. But the Wilderness Act and its founders got it right in setting Wilderness apart from all other public lands, “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man… retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…”

As “increasing populations accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization” spread across the whole of North America, the Wilderness Act protects extraordinary places like the Glacier Peak Wilderness so future generations can know wild, unsettled and undeveloped lands.

Posted by Wilderness Watch on 07/11/2011 at 4:22 PM

As a Volunteer who works in a Wilderness I do not fool myself into believing that I am re-conquering the land when I am on trail patrol. I try hard to place myself in a frame of mind that helps me revel in the wonder of the land and take joy in the re-discovery of something precious. When I find litter on the trail or look across a lake and see brightly colored tents my joy of re-discovery is difficult to maintain. I can only imagine rounding a bend in the trail to catch sight of a tall steel, wood and glass structure.

Like our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, the Wilderness Act was prescient of the need to protect the remaining acres of Wilderness that we have. The language and conditions of the Act are tough with good reason. Those words must be the first line of defense against all competing interests and efforts to "bend a little here" and "give a little there". The watchtower should be deconstructed by hand and carried out on the backs of people or pack stock. Then let the Wilderness reclaim the area.

Posted by Photo Bob-SGWA on 07/09/2011 at 1:22 AM

Ms. Spagna,

You have misunderstood the word "untrammeled." The lookout will hardly trammel (control, manipulate, impede) the wilderness at all. It will, however, be a development -- a structure -- in "an area of undeveloped Federal land" where structures are forbidden unless they are "necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of [the Wilderness] Act."

Does this completely rebuilt structure meet that test? Since it no longer has any integrity of materials, it is unlikely this structure is so important as to still meet the requirements of the National Register, which further weakens its necessity for preservation in a wilderness. It is my understanding that the Forest Service intends to use this structure as a visitor contact station -- which may serve as an administrative purpose, but certainly does not meet the "minimum requirements" test.

So, it isn't all about the helicopter. But the use of the helicopter, too, can be authorized only under the same conditions as a structure. You seem to want the structure to honor those who went before -- "the people who built the lookouts...Civilian Conservation Corps members or local packers or trail workers, poorly paid and outfitted...hardy and courageous, skilled and earnest." Then why in the world would you not insist that the new structure be built in the same manner? I guarantee you the original Green Mountain Lookout was built without a helicopter.

Finally, you think this is such a little deal as not meriting a lawsuit? Pronghorn's comment above properly calls you to task for your absurdly disingenuous comparison with serious crimes. But where WOULD you draw the line? Allowing a State hunting agency to land helicopters to radio-collar wolves so that after they gained legal "control" of the predators they could find and kill them so that outfitters for elk hunters will be guaranteed a higher success rate? Oh -- wait -- the Forest Service has already done that.

Where, Ms. Spagna, would you draw the line? How about at the law. It's not all that hard -- just inconvenient at times.

Posted by George Vincent on 07/07/2011 at 2:51 PM

Excellent comments Pronghorn. Here are some additional thoughts on the "lookout" from Wilderness Watch.

New ‘lookout’ doesn’t belong there
By George Nickas
The Everett Herald
Published: Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Herald recently reported on Wilderness Watch’s lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service for building a new structure on Green Mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Here’s why wilderness advocates believe the litigation was necessary and why it will succeed.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The act also states, “there shall be … no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft … and no structure or installation” within wilderness.

By building this new structure on Green Mountain and using helicopters to transport materials and workers to the site, the Forest Service’s actions have violated these fundamental tenets of wilderness law. By failing to notify the public of its plans or conduct any environmental review of the project, the Forest Service also violated the bedrock requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

It is because of these violations of law and the need to restore the wilderness character of the Glacier Peak Wilderness that Wilderness Watch has taken the Forest Service to court.

The Herald article quoted some supporters of the structure who suggested since the new building looks like the old one, it preserves the history of Green Mountain and the Forest Service should be allowed to reconstruct or replace it. This reasoning echoes those who wanted to reconstruct “historic” dams in the Emigrant Wilderness in the High Sierra, who supported replacing historic trail shelters with replica pre-fabs in the Olympic Wilderness, and who sought to continue vehicle tours to view historic structures on the eastern seaboard’s Cumberland Island Wilderness.

Everybody has a reason for giving his or her particular interest precedence over the law and the restrictions imposed on others. But the Wilderness Act and its founders got it right. In the face of “increasing populations accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization” spread across the whole of North America, the Wilderness Act separates out extraordinary places like the Glacier Peak Wilderness, where future generations can experience wild, unsettled and undeveloped lands.

The Forest Service argues that the lookout is used “to manage the wilderness and make sure that no one is committing violations of the wilderness act,” when in fact it’s the agency that has violated the law.

The proper thing for the agency to do is take down the structure unlawfully built in the wilderness and use it to replace one of the dozens of other lookouts outside wilderness areas and in need of repair. The structure can be enjoyed and the wilderness preserved.

In overturning the Park Service’s 2003 decision to replace two collapsed historic trail shelters in the Olympic Wilderness, federal Judge Franklin Burgess wrote, “Once the Olympic Wilderness was designated, a different perspective on the land is required. … The (shelters) have collapsed under the natural effects of weather and time, and to reconstruct the shelters and place the replicas on the sites of the original shelters by means of a helicopter is in direct contradiction of the mandate to preserve the wilderness character of the Olympic Wilderness.”

He added that, rather than providing shelters, “a different ‘feeling’ of wilderness is sought to be preserved for future generations to enjoy, a place ‘where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man’ and which retains ‘its primitive character and influence, without permanent improvements.’”

It is this perspective — a commitment to both the spirit and the letter of the Wilderness Act — that Wilderness Watch’s lawsuit seeks to uphold.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national organization dedicated to the protection of the lands and waters in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 07/07/2011 at 11:29 AM

There's much to criticize in this piece, written by someone with an obvious emotional investment in the lookout (as opposed to investment in adhering to the Wilderness Act). It leaves her breathless. She's in awe of the original builders. Her friends re-built the new structure. That's all nice, and understandable, but irrelevant. She even admits that the rebuilt lookout trammels wilderness (violates the law) but then turns around and says it's merely a "crime against human sensibilities."

She continues: "... the downside of wilderness protection is the desire to pretend we are the first humans to arrive in a pristine land." Where do people get these ideas? None of the Wilderness professionals and advocates I know (and I know many and am one) desire to pretend any such thing. Cultural resources exist in many Wilderness areas and they are managed as such. Lewis & Clark, hikers relying on forest roads, none of this has ANYthing to do with the land Congress has designated as Wilderness, land to be managed by the LAW of the land, the Wilderness Act. It's really quite simple. To compare the "offense" of ignoring the Wilderness Act to the treatment of prisoners of war or any other crime (BTW, denial of climate change might be stupid, but it's not a crime) is simply absurd. Is one case of child abuse as heinous as large-scale genocide? No? Then let's not waste time on it.

That one can see parking lots and clear-cuts from Wilderness mountain tops would, it seems to me, be all the more reason for adhering to the letter of the law within Wilderness boundaries.

She says, "I don't want to play pretend. I'd rather honor the people who came before me." Well, that goes for me, too. I certainly can appreciate what it took to build the original structure. But if you want to talk "awe," I'm in awe of the men and women who dedicated literally decades of their lives to getting the Wilderness Act passed. I honor the Wilderness professionals in the land managing agencies who dedicate their daily working lives to the Wilderness Act in every management decision they make. I totally appreciate watchdog groups like Wilderness Watch, and thank them for their vigilance.

Posted by Pronghorn on 07/07/2011 at 9:06 AM
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