Washington, DC -- The Olympic National Park is preparing to airlift prefabricated buildings into its wilderness areas in violation of the Wilderness Act, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The two structures are three-sided cabins, called trailside shelters, and would be hoisted into the park's backcountry by Chinook helicopters. These new shelters would replace two collapsed historic shelters that the park had allowed to deteriorate. According to the park, repairing the old shelters was rejected because it would "not be healthful, productive, or esthetically and culturally pleasing to most ONP visitors or staff."
Regardless of the aesthetics, what Olympic National Park proposes violates the Wilderness Act, the fundamental statute that governs how the Park Service administers Congressionally designated wilderness of Olympic and other national parks. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act categorically prohibits erecting "structures" in wilderness. The only exception is "…as necessary to meet the 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)."
While the Wilderness Act also makes allowance for historic structures, the buildings that Olympic wants to airlift are brand new. Nor can these prefabs be considered replicas of original shelters that once occupied the sites since they differ from the historic structures in significant ways. Fifteen years after wilderness designation at Olympic, the park has yet to produce a required management plan to guide administrative actions in wilderness.
"What part of wilderness doesn't Olympic understand?" asked PEER Board member Frank Buono, a former long-time Park Service Manager. "The National Park Service is supposed to safeguard the wilderness character of its back country, but at Olympic, the park itself would become the chief violator."
"Flying new buildings with heavy-lift helicopters is a misguided way to manage one of our country's premier wilderness parks," adds Tim McNulty of Olympic Park Associates, a conservation group that focuses on the park. "With nearly a million dollars of flood-destroyed trails and bridges this winter, there has to be a better use for limited dollars."
According to its proposal, Olympic National Park has spent over $100,000 on the prefabs (plus another planned 50,000 for flights), even though the environmental assessment is not final and the public comment period extends to February 27.
"Talk about buying the horse before pricing the cart, Olympic National Park went ahead and built these structures before seeking public comment," added Buono. "Every time the Park Service uses taxpayer dollars frivolously or illegally, it undercuts the argument that the parks would be OK if we just get Congress to appropriate more funds for them."
If you wish to register your concerns about this project, you may do so by writing to: Superintendent, Olympic National Park 600 East Park Avenue, Port Angeles, Washington 98362