Saving a historic chalet gets the hush-hush treatment

 

When I set out to report on the effort to save a historic chalet in the rugged backcountry of Washington’s Olympic National Park, I thought the toughest part would be the 13-mile hike.

What I found after six hours on the trail, however, was a bizarre blockade on press freedom, the likes of which I’d never experienced outside a military base or murder scene. True, saving the chalet was controversial; it was located in a wilderness area, and nothing motorized is supposed to happen there.

Yet the moving crew, made up of preservationists, house movers, two cooks and a pack animal driver, were happy to see I’d come all the way to their wilderness worksite. Miles from the nearest road and with limited tools and equipment at their disposal, the crew was accomplishing the herculean task of pushing the three-story Enchanted Valley Chalet away from the river that had undercut its foundation by nearly eight feet.

It had all the makings of a great story. Strangely, though, it was a story the Park Service wanted told through one person – a spokeswoman sent from park headquarters to handle the likes of me. 

Her first rule: No crossing a yellow caution tape stretched over a vast area several times larger than the chalet. The reason she gave was safety, though she and the cook crew moved about freely. Could I stand by the cooks as they fried up dinner, I asked. “No,” she answered. How’s about when all the work’s done? “No.” What if the project’s boss accompanies me? “No.” What if I put on a hard hat and you accompany me? “No.”

I wandered over to a mover petting pack animals outside the tape. As I snapped photos, we chitchatted about horses. The spokeswoman interrupted, telling me the press wasn’t allowed to speak with anyone associated with the project. 

I was dumbfounded. I asked her to repeat herself. 

“You’re in a restricted area,” she explained. 

“But we’re just talking about horses, and we’re outside the tape,” I said. “Did the restricted area just grow?”

No, she said, indicating there was a much larger, unmarked restricted area that limited not just access but speech. 

The next morning was to be the official “media day” -- the designated time in which newspapers and TV stations could witness the culmination of what had become a story of regional interest.

Our invitation mentioned only two restrictions on the press: No drones. No helicopters. I dutifully complied with both. 

The spokeswoman said several newspapers and TV stations had expressed serious interest in attending. I don’t especially like competition, but I looked forward to their presence. Blocking access to one reporter is certainly easier than blocking it from several. 

But I didn’t have to wait until morning to get the interviews I sought. The interviews came to me. The crew, I found, was more than willing to talk, so long as it was out of the view of three park staffers at the site. I spoke with them in hidden groves, shady spots along the river and on the trail, far from the worksite. 

One mover tracked me down at my campsite. He was proud of the work they were doing and wanted their story told. He ran me though the moving process, recounting the unique challenges of hauling heavy equipment and materials into the wilderness and pushing an 84-year-old building away from an unstable riverbank. 

The strange restrictions, he explained, were partly due to the park’s sensitivity about revealing just how far it had bent the rules of the Wilderness Act. The Park Service had obtained special permission to use helicopters and gas-powered jacks for the project.

The restrictions also follow a trend on the part of federal lands managers to closely manage or block access altogether. The most high-profile example of this is the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to formalize rules requiring journalists to ask permission and pay a fee before taking photos or video in wilderness areas. 

The mover and I spoke until after dark. He didn’t have a flashlight so I offered to guide him back with my headlamp. He refused, fearing that he’d be fired if he was spotted anywhere near me. 

In the morning, the official tour began. Two guys who produce a hiking blog showed up; I was the lone journalist.

But I already had my story. It just didn’t need to be this difficult, I thought as I set off for the hike back. The Park Service did not need to be so restrictive. The people doing the work did not need to be muzzled. And the 13-mile return hike on sore feet? Well, that just couldn’t be helped.

Tristan Baurick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of NewTowncarShare News. He is the public lands and outdoors reporter for the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Washington. He recently completed a Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellowship at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • 2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...