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New Olympic Park Shelters Ruled Illegal in Wilderness

Gil Reavis

A landmark victory for wilderness everywhere

Gil Reavis, a member in the Litigation, Environmental, Insurance Coverage, and Land Use practice groups represented two environmental entities, Wilderness Watch and Olympic Park Associates, in a pro bono case challenging reconstruction of trail shelters in a wilderness area. On August, 3, 2005, he secured an important victory preserving wilderness character as required by the Wilderness Act of 1964.

U.S. District Court Judge Franklin D. Burgess agreed that Olympic National Park's plan to erect two newly-constructed trail shelters in park wilderness was in violation of the Wilderness Act. The three-sided shelters, erected in a park maintenance yard, were to be fl own in by Chinook helicopter into remote subalpine meadows in the Olympic Park. One was to be installed at Low Divide, and the other at Home Sweet Home, to replace trail shelters built in the 1930s that were destroyed by snow. While the Park contended the shelters were historic structures, essential for visitor safety and would not detract from the area's wilderness character, Judge Burgess found that not to be the case on all counts. Instead, he ruled the Park Service had made "a clear error of judgment."

According to Reavis, "While the Park Service is required to consider the effects of its actions on historic structures, the rules change when those structures are in wilderness areas." In a strongly worded decision, Judge Burgess agreed that " '[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.' " 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'."

"This decision resolves a long-standing, contentious issue at Olympic National Park," said Donna Osseward, president of Olympic Park Associates, "and it's a landmark victory for wilderness everywhere." Since the National Park Service manages more acres of wilderness than any other federal agency, roughly 44 million acres, this decision could have widespread signifi cance. "The Court ruled that creating the Olympic Wilderness has placed a 'new value' on the land, one that is more important than reconstructing old buildings," said Osseward. "That's something we've been arguing for close to a decade," she added.

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