House passes bill to save Green Mountain Lookout

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SEATTLE (AP) - The U.S. House on Monday passed a measure to save the popular Green Mountain Lookout in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, which a federal judge had ordered removed after an environmental group sued.

Rep. Suzan DelBene said Monday the legislation offers a piece good news for the small logging town of Darrington, which is reeling from last month’s devastating mudslide in nearby Oso that killed 33 people. The structure is popular with hikers, tourists and locals in the area and had been seen as a driver of recreation and tourism.

“It’s a very unique part of the community that many people in Darrington have hiked up. It really is a part of their community,” said DelBene, a Democrat.

The Senate bill passed the House on a voice vote Monday after clearing the Senate unanimously Thursday. It now goes to the president, who has indicated support for the lookout.

The legislation, sponsored by Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, preserves the lookout and prevents the U.S. Forest Service from removing the lookout unless it is deemed unsafe for visitors.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed that they’re doing this,” said George Nikas, executive director of the Montana-based Wilderness Watch, shortly before the House vote. The group sued in 2010 to challenge the structure’s construction. “It’s not only harmful to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, it sets a very troubling dangerous precedent for wilderness.”

The structure atop a 6,500-foot peak in Washington’s North Cascades originally was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It served as a fire lookout and as a perch for detecting enemy aircraft during World War II. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2010, the nonprofit Wilderness Watch sued the Forest Service, saying it used helicopters and electric tools to build a new lookout in violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The group had argued that the renovated lookout degrades the solitude and natural conditions that people are entitled to experience in wilderness.

“It really undermines the law, and it undermines wilderness protection,” Nikas said.

The group also alleged that the federal agency violated federal environmental laws by not analyzing the environmental consequences of renovating the lookout.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle sided with the group, saying “the Forest Service went too far” in trying to protect the structure. He said the agency “erred egregiously” by not conducting the needed analysis when it decided to fully disassemble the lookout, transport pieces off-site by helicopter, construct a new foundation on site and reassemble it. The judge ordered the Forest Service to remove the lookout from the mountain.

The state’s congressional delegation has been trying to save it, with several bills introduced in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has been coming up with ways to take the lookout down.

Murray said when she, Cantwell and others visited the scene of the deadly Washington landslide, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and others asked the members of the state’s delegation to help pass the bill.

“When Mayor Rankin made clear that speedy passage was vital to giving the community of Darrington a glimmer of hope for the future, I was even prouder to get work to make this happen immediately,” Murray said in a statement Monday.

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