A Big Win for Historic Structures in Wilderness Areas
Historic preservation groups celebrate appellate court decision affirming that historic resources enhance the character and experience of wilderness areas
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently affirmed a district court’s decision that preserving historic structures in wilderness is consistent with the Wilderness Act. Since 2016, a lawsuit challenging the National Park Service’s (NPS) decision to preserve historic trail shelters in Olympic National Park had been working its way through the courts. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and the Friends of Olympic National Park joined this litigation in support of the Park Service’s authority to protect historic resources in wilderness areas.
The following are statements from the preservation groups in response to the ruling:
Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel, National Trust for Historic Preservation:
“The National Trust is very pleased with the court’s decision to affirm that historic resources enhance the character and experience of wilderness areas. The decision makes it clear that federal agencies like the National Park Service can and should take actions to protect human history in wilderness areas. The conclusion of this lawsuit enables NPS to move forward with its wilderness planning process for Olympic National Park and to include the preservation of its historic structures in that process. This will ensure that the park’s distinctive trail shelter system can continue to be maintained for the use and enjoyment of visitors.”
Chris Moore, executive director, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation:
“Olympic National Park is one of the most beloved and historic landscapes in Washington State. Visitors come from around the world to experience its natural beauty. The remaining historic trail structures and cabins within the park allow visitors to learn directly about the history of the landscape over time.”
Rod Farlee, vice-president, Friends of Olympic National Park:
“These shelters and cabin tell the story of the early history of Olympic National Park and its trail system. Some of them were used to support the original construction of trails within the park, which ultimately helped to encourage visitors to come and appreciate the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula. Preserving these structures ensures that tangible reminders of the park’s early history remain.”
About the Lawsuit
Montana-based Wilderness Watch sued the National Park Service, seeking the court-ordered removal of four trail shelters and a cabin from the park’s wilderness areas. After losing in the district court, Wilderness Watch appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals has affirmed the district court’s decision, ensuring that the National Park Service can continue to maintain these rustic log shelters that are in keeping with the primitive beauty of the park’s backcountry. Because of the significance of the resources and the lawsuit, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks weighed in as amicus curiae in support of preserving historic resources in wilderness.
The preservation groups were represented pro bono by David O. Bechtold and Elaine L. Spencer of Northwest Resource Law PLLC.
About the Historic Structures of Olympic National Park
The shelters at risk in this case, including those built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, are closely intertwined with the history of Olympic National Park itself. Originally constructed to support the creation and maintenance of trails in the early 20th century and to detect and fight forest fires, they enhanced recreational use and opened up the park to the public in a way never before possible. Published accounts of visitors who stayed in these shelters led to widespread appreciation of the beauty of the Olympics, and ultimately to its preservation by U.S. Congress in 1938 as a national park and in 1988 as a wilderness. Only 18 of the original 90 shelters in Olympic Wilderness remain today. They are all eligible for or listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The specific structures impacted by the ruling include:
- Canyon Creek Shelter constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939 overlooking Sol Duc Falls. This is a T-shaped, one-story log building with a wood-shaked, cross-gabled roof set on a concrete foundation. This shelter is the only CCC-built shelter remaining in the Park of three built. It was listed on the National Register in April 2007 for its architectural significance and association with the CCC.
- Elk Lake Shelter, 15 trail miles up the Hoh River, is a three-sided 14’ x 14’ log shelter with open front. Shelters at Elk Lake have offered refuge to climbers approaching Mt. Olympus since 1927. This shelter, a replacement built in 1963, represents the last variation of shelter design in the Park.
- Wilder Shelter, 21 trail miles up the Elwha River, is a 12’ x 12’ three-sided solid log structure built in 1951 to accommodate backcountry visitors. It was listed on the National Register in 2008.
- Botten Cabin, near Wilder, is an 11’ x 17’ log cabin with gabled roof built in 1928 featuring fine, hand-crafted, dovetail-notched corners. The cabin is actively used as an emergency shelter. It was listed on the National Register in April of 2007 for its architectural significance and association with recreational history in the park.
- Bear Camp Shelter is a three-sided solid log structure 12’x16’ deep built in 1952. It is 16 trail miles up the Dosewallips River.
About the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation
Established in 1976, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation preserves Washington’s historic places through advocacy, education, collaboration, and stewardship. PreserveWA.org | @preservewa
About the Friends of Olympic National Park
Formed in 2001 with the mission of supporting Olympic National Park in preserving the Park's natural, cultural and recreational resources for the benefit of present and future generations. FriendsONP.org