OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Olympic National Park had the authority to repair five historic structures in its wilderness area, a federal judge has ruled.
A Montana environmental group sued park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum and the National Park Service in 2015 after crews rebuilt or rehabilitated Botten Cabin, Canyon Creek Shelter, Wilder Shelter, Bear Camp Shelter and Elk Lake Shelter.
Wilderness Watch challenged the park’s decision to repair the hiking shelters and to use helicopters and motorized tools to do so under the federal Wilderness Act.
Judge Robert B. Leighton of the U.S. District Court of Western Washington in Tacoma granted the park’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit Dec. 14.
“The record demonstrates that the Park Service did not arbitrarily and capriciously repair [the five cabins],” Leighton concluded.
“It reasonably determined the minimum amount of work necessary to preserve the structure’s historic integrity, consistent with the Wilderness Act.
“It also properly exempted this routine, replacement work from environmental review by first considering and dismissing the possibility that it would produce significant environmental impacts.”
In a Friday interview, Creachbaum said she was “thrilled” by the outcome of the case and “very happy that we can continue to use our management expertise to take care of all of the resources in the park.”
Olympic National Park respects the tenets of the Wilderness Act by maintaining historic structures and the wilderness characteristics of the park, Creachbaum said.
“It’s a balance,” she said.
Creachbaum added that the five cabins named in the lawsuit, all of which were built before the Olympic Wilderness was created in 1988, “have a lot of historic value.”
“They’re part of the fabric of Olympic National Park,” she said.
Botten Cabin, also known as Wilder Patrol Cabin, was built in the Elwha Valley in 1928.
Canyon Creek Shelter, also known as Sol Duc Falls Shelter, was built near the falls in 1939.
Wilder Shelter, near the Botten Cabin, was built in 1952.
Bear Camp Shelter in the Dosewallips River watershed was built in 1952.
Elk Lake Shelter in the Hoh watershed was built in 1963.
All five structure are listed on, or are eligible for listing on, the National Register of Historic Places.
“We applaud the court for ruling that the designation of wilderness need not result in the erasure of cultural resources within that landscape,” said Brian Turner, senior field officer and attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a statement.
Last June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and Friends of Olympic National Park filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit, defending the park.
“It’s always nice to be supported by your community,” Creachbaum said.
They argued that the Wilderness Act “does not prohibit the maintenance of, or mandate the destruction of, cultural heritage sites in wilderness areas.”
“The park not only includes majestic natural wonders, but also contains historic sites that allow visitors to reflect on the human history of the Northwest,” according to the motion to intervene, which was filed by Seattle-based Miller Nash Graham & Dunn.
“These structures are not the forgotten, dilapidated structures portrayed in the complaint, but are well-known and well-loved places cherished by the local community.”
The historic trusts and Friends of the park argued that the lawsuit was an “extreme attack” on the park’s cultural resources and sought the removal of “beloved and historic structures” under a no-maintenance plan that would likely lead to the destruction of other historic cabins, the motion read.
Several declarations were filed by representatives of the intervening groups.
“The local community’s love for the shelters can best be seen by the hundreds of hours that volunteers have spent preserving and repairing them, and the tremendous efforts made by many individuals to document each shelter’s storied history,” the motion stated.
In its lawsuit, Wilderness Watch alleged that the park’s actions since 2011 were “arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion” and/or illegal.
Before repairing the structures, the park should have notified the public, sought public comment and prepared an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act, the lawsuit said.
Wilderness Watch members who had hiked to the cabins found them to be an “objectionable disruption of their wilderness experience and an affront to the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act,” according to an amended complaint filed by Paul Kampmeier of Seattle-based Kampmeier & Knutsen.
The wilderness protection group said the cabins “create a lasting monument to human presence in the wilderness” and “disrupt the view, the opportunities for solitude, and their enjoyment of the untrammeled, quiet and wild environment of the Olympic Wilderness,” Kampmeier wrote.
The lawsuit claimed that Wilderness Watch members were “adversely affected and irreparably injured” by the cabins and the park’s “unlawful decisions” to rehabilitate or reconstruct them using helicopters and motorized tools.
In a response prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Park Service argued that the repairs were part of routine maintenance authorized under the 2008 Olympic National Park General Management Plan.
Each project was evaluated with a “Minimum Requirement Worksheet” to determine if repairs were necessary, and if so, how to minimize the impacts on the wilderness, according to the park’s response.
The park supporters argued in court filings that Wilderness Watch had brought a series of lawsuits arguing that the Wilderness Act trumps the National Historical Preservation Act and the National Park Service Organic Act.
“This case is the next step in Wilderness Watch’s campaign to concoct a legal precedent that historic preservation and wilderness conservation are mutually exclusive and at odds,” the motion read.
“This position is clearly erroneous given the text and legislative history of the Wilderness Act, which, among other things, requires the protection of ‘historical use’ within wilderness areas.”
The judge found that the park “reasonably concluded” that each structure had historical values and supported its decisions to use motorized tools and helicopters in Minimum Requirement Worksheets for each project.
“The park service considered the positive and negative effects of multiple alternatives and selected the option that in its expert opinion would affect the wilderness the least,” Leighton wrote.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at email@example.com.