Federal appeals court rules in favor of keeping historic structures in Olympic National Park

PORT ANGELES — A federal court has ruled that four trail shelters and a cabin can stay put in Olympic National Park.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided July 19 that the National Park Service’s rehabilitation or rebuilding of the structures in the park’s designated Olympic Wilderness area does not violate the federal Wilderness Act.

The lawsuit against the Park Service, Olympic National Park and ONP Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum was filed in in 2016 federal District Court for the Western District of Washington by Missoula, Mont.-based Wilderness Watch, a wilderness and wild-and-scenic-rivers watchdog group.

A Wilderness Watch spokesman did not return calls for comment Thursday and Friday.

“The park is satisfied with the decision in this case,” ONP spokeswoman Penny Wagner said.

“As far as the structures that were part of the case, there are no plans at this time for any additional work.”

When the Olympic Wilderness was created in 1988, 40 man-made structures lay within its boundaries.

The structures at issue in the case included the Botten Cabin, built in 1928, and the Wilder Shelter, built in 1952, both of which are in the Elwha River watershed.

The other structures were the Bear Camp Shelter, built in 1952 in the Dosewallips River watershed; Canyon Creek Shelter, also known as Sol Duc Falls Shelter, built in 1939 in the Sol Duc River watershed; and the Elk Lake Shelter, built in 1963 in the Hoh River watershed.

Wilderness Watch asserted in a Jan. 6, 2016 amended complaint that the Park Service failed to describe how rebuilding the Elk Lake Shelter met the requirements of the Wilderness Act and to explain why the agency needed to maintain the four shelters and cabin.

The group also asserted that the Park Service violated the Act by using helicopters and motorized tools for the work when the structures and motorized uses were not “necessary to meet minimum requirements for administration of the area for purpose of [the Wilderness Act].”

The Park Service also failed to use alternatives that would have had fewer impacts on the Olympic Wilderness, according to the lawsuit.

The work on the structures “degraded the wilderness character of the Olympic Wilderness,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asked the court to “order defendants to restore the status quo, which may include removing structures that Defendants repaired, reconstructed, or replaced in violation of the law.”

The appeals court noted Wilderness Watch had argued that preserving man-made structures, each of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places or are eligible for the listing, did not serve the “purpose” of the Act.

The Park Service countered that the restoration of the structures, “was in service of Congress; direction that wilderness areas be ‘devoted’ to the public purpose of ‘historical use,’ ” according to the opinion.

In its opinion, the court sided with the Park Service.

The Ninth Circuit court had already determined that the Wilderness Act gives agencies directives to preserve wilderness as well as provide for “recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use,” according to the opinion, quoting from federal law.

In addition, the court had determined in a 2010 case in which Wilderness Watch sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that there is no reason that historical and conservation uses should be treated differently, according to the opinion.

“The Park Service has a longstanding commitment to preserving historic structures while, at the same time, taking wilderness concerns into account,” according to the opinion.

“While the Park Service may not have fully considered the alternative means of preservation suggested by Wilderness Watch, such as reconstructing the structures outside the wilderness, such consideration was not necessary since it is clear that maintaining these structures in their original locations was essential to preserving their historical value.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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