Rocky Mountain National Park has just completed construction of the new Chasm Meadows Patrol Cabin. Built by the CCC in 1931, this historic stone cabin was completely destroyed by avalanche in March 2003. The Park immediately built a temporary wooden replacement on its foundation. A full Environmental Assessment was issued, received no objections; funding was secured, materials and equipment were air-lifted into the site by helicopter, and this new permanent replacement was completed in September.
Chasm Meadows Patrol Cabin [NPS]
The new cabin was located 600 feet east of the old cabin site, outside of the avalanche chute, and 4 miles inside wilderness. It is constructed of concrete composite, faced with rock, and is equipped with solar photovoltaic panels. Thousands of visitors climb Longs Peak each summer, particularly via its famous east face, "The Diamond", above this cabin. It serves as an essential base of operations for medical assists and SAR.
There are three key facts about this cabin:
- it is located well within (4 miles inside of) a Federally-designated wilderness area,
- the NPS deemed it historic and essential for visitor safety and administration of the area, and
- after it was completely destroyed by nature, the NPS replaced it with an entirely new structure. Illegal within Olympic NP?
If a wilderness ranger station in Olympic Wilderness is destroyed by avalanche, heavy snows, flood, fire or a huge windfall tree, it may be illegal to replace it. In the case of Olympic Park Associates vs. Mainella [Director, NPS] (2005), the key facts were the same, but Judge Burgess ruled "The Home Sweet Home and Low Divide shelters have collapsed under the natural effects of weather and time, and to reconstruct the shelters and place the replicas on the sites of the original shelters by means of a helicopter is in direct contradiction of the mandate to preserve the wilderness character of the Olympic Wilderness."
Judge Burgess cited in particular one provision of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1133(c)) "except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this chapter... there shall be... no structure or installation within any such area."
Does the Burgess decision forbid replacement of any wilderness shelter or ranger station in Olympic NP: essential, historic, or not? Or only the means (airlifting in a prefab replica)? NPS Position
As noted by Dr. Allyson Brooks, Washington State Historic Preservation Officer, Judge Burgess chose to ignore another provision of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1133(a)(3)) "the designation of any area of any park, monument, or other unit of the national park system as a wilderness area pursuant to this chapter shall in no manner lower the standards evolved for the use and preservation of such park in accordance with..." the National Park Organic Act, the National Historic Sites Act and National Historic Preservation Act, which allow essential and historic structures [Olympic NP GMP/EIS, Volume 2, page 167 (2006)].
This interpretation is cited throughout the Olympic NP General Management Plan [vol. 1, p. 196] and the 2006 NPS Wilderness Policy [section 6.3.8] "Cultural resources that have been included within wilderness will be protected and maintained according to the pertinent laws and policies governing cultural resources using management methods that are consistent with the preservation of wilderness character and values."
In short, Burgess found "This decision of the National Park Service to airlift the reconstructed shelters into the Olympic Wilderness brings the values of historic preservation and wilderness preservation into conflict with each other". However, the Wilderness Act itself explicitly yields to "any other Act of Congress which might pertain to or affect such area". The clear intent of Congress was that no conflict between the Wilderness Act and historic preservation laws should exist.
Intent of Congress
Olympic Wilderness was established in the 1988 Washington Parks Wilderness Act, sponsored by former Governor and Senator Dan Evans. An avid hiker even today, he was quite aware of the historical and functional aspects of Olympic trail shelters. Had the Wilderness Act been understood not to provide for shelters in the back country, Sen. Evans would not have stated the following in his remarks urging passage of the bill: "[During House hearings], a concern was raised with the effect of wilderness designation on the [ONP] backcountry shelters. It would be my presumption that designation of the park as wilderness by this act should not, in and of itself, be utilized as justification for removal of any of these structures from the park. Some of the structures may need to be removed for the purposes of environmental protection of the park. For others, repairs and stabilization may be warranted to insure the preservation of their historic integrity. Others may serve a substantial public purpose and should be retained for their benefits to public use." - 134 Cong. Rec. S16519 (daily ed. October 18, 1988) (statement of Sen. Evans).
The intent of Congress was clear: there should be no conflict.
Since this decision, Olympic NP has continued to lose wilderness shelters at the rate of one per year: Twelve Mile, Falls, Wilder and Pelton Creeks. Of the 99 shelters built within Olympic NP, only 17 stand today. Once destroyed, Olympic NP cannot replace them without threat of lawsuit. Despite that facts that the NPS deems them essential to visitor health and safety, and has listed them on the National Register of Historic Places. We can maintain, stabilize or rehabilitate them, but if destroyed completely, can we replace them?
12 Mile Shelter buried by 2007 flood
Pelton Shelter collapsed under 2008 snows
It is only a matter of time until we lose an essential backcountry ranger station. When we do, we may lose it forever.
A year later, Judge Burgess may have had second thoughts? He issued this ruling "the United States, on behalf of National Park Service officials, was substantially justified in its arguments on the summary judgement motions. As noted by the United States, this case brought into conflict the values of historic preservation and wilderness preservation, which was a matter of first impression and one that created difficult questions. The United States reasonably attempted to harmonize the competing interests and legal authorities. The task was not any easy one. The United States was substantially justified in its position, and consequently, the Plaintiffs [Olympic Park Associates, et al.] are not entitled to an award of [$90,000] attorneys' fees."
Yet the Burgess decision still stands. It has created two separate standards for essential, historic wilderness structures: one which applies only within the Western Federal District of Washington (only to Olympic and Mt. Rainier NPs), and one which applies to all50 other National Park wilderness areas in the other 49-1/2 states.
We haveone Wilderness Act. Shouldn't we have one uniform, national interpretation of it?
- Rod Farlee
Endorsed by unanimous vote of the FONP Board of Directors, Nov. 2009
"Shelters are an organic part of Olympic Wilderness." - Paul Gleeson, Chief, Cultural Resources, Olympic National Park.