Tacoma - U.S. District Court Judge Franklin D. Burgess found that the Olympic National Park's plan to erect two newly constructed trail shelters in park Wilderness is “a clear error of judgment” and in violation of the Wilderness Act, according to Olympic Park Associates, Wilderness Watch and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The three-sided shelters, previously constructed in a park maintenance yard were to be flown by Chinook helicopter into remote subalpine meadows in the Olympic Wilderness. One was scheduled to be installed at Low Divide, the other at Home Sweet Home. They would replace trail shelters built in the 1930s that were destroyed by snow in 1998.
The Park Service argued that it was required by law to preserve the shelters as historic resources that are essential for visitor safety and would enhance the area's wilderness character.
“The Home Sweet Home and Low Divide shelters have collapsed under the natural effects of weather and time,” Judge Burgess wrote, referring to the natural processes the Wilderness Act allows for. To reconstruct and fly in new shelters by helicopter, he declared, “is in direct contradiction of the mandate to preserve the wilderness character of the Olympic Wilderness.”
The three organizations brought a lawsuit to halt the project in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, WA, in October of last year. The plaintiffs charged that the action was in violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. That law specifically prohibits unnecessary “structures or installations” as well as “mechanized transport” in designated Wilderness.
Ninety-five percent of Olympic Park was designated as Wilderness by Congress in 1988.
“This decision resolves a long-standing, contentious issue at Olympic,” said Donna Osseward, president of Olympic Park Associates, “and it's a landmark victory for Wilderness everywhere.”
Since the National Park Service manages 44 million acres of Wilderness, more than any other federal agency, this decision could have widespread significance.
“The Court strongly reaffirmed the agency's paramount responsibility to preserve the Olympic's wilderness character,” stated George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “And that means the wild and primitive character of the land, free of permanent improvements or other modern conveniences.”
“This case stood on its own merits,” noted Chas Offutt, PEER’s Communications Director. “The court’s ruling further upholds Congress’ attempt to preserve and protect the integrity of the Wilderness Act.”
“[F]or a wilderness user to come across a brand new structure in a subalpine meadow would surely be disconcerting and obviously detract from experiencing, in the Park Service's words, ‘wilderness on its own terms,’” Burgess wrote in a strongly worded 13-page decision. He determined that, if the shelters were placed in Wilderness, the Park Service “would not be administering the area in accordance with its mandate under the Wilderness Act... ‘to preserve its wilderness character’.”
"The Court ruled that the creation of the Olympic Wilderness has placed a 'new value' on the land, one that is more important than reconstructing old buildings," said Donna Osseward. "That's something we've been arguing for close to a decade," she added. "I hope the Park Service finally get the message."