WASHINGTON — Congress has agreed to save the Green Mountain Lookout near Darrington in Snohomish County, permanently blocking a federal judge’s order to remove the popular hiking destination in the remote
Glacier Peak Wilderness.

A House voice vote on the issue Monday followed similarly expedited passage last Thursday in the Senate, where Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell secured unanimous support.

The congressional action marks the final word on a legal fight that began in 2010 when Missoula-based Wilderness Watch sued the U.S. Forest Service shortly after the agency rebuilt the crumbling 1930s-era lookout cabin.

The legislation now goes to President Obama, who has indicated support for the lookout.

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The environmental group argued the repairs — which involved more than 60 helicopter flights and use of rock drills and other power tools where even bicycles are banned — violated a tenet of the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve areas of nature largely devoid of the “imprint of man’s work.”

In March 2012, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour in Seattle found the Forest Service guilty of “substantive violation” of the Wilderness Act and ordered the lookout dismantled. But in response to the Forest Service’s arguments that removal would be worse than the offense, the judge gave the agency a chance to come up with another remedy.

The bill Congress passed is that solution. It prevents the Forest Service from removing the lookout unless it is deemed unsafe for visitors.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said the vote sets a dangerous precedent by tailoring the definition of wilderness “to appease local constituency.”

In addition to Murray and Cantwell, the bill’s sponsors were Democratic Reps. Suzan DelBene of Medina, whose district encompasses the lookout and Glacier Peak Wilderness, and Rick Larsen of Everett, whose district included Oso and Darrington until the 2012 redistricting.

The lawmakers argued the lookout — which offers hikers wraparound views of Suiattle River Valley toward Glacier Peak — is a valuable part of Pacific Northwest heritage and a monument to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Among the groups that supported keeping the lookout were Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Darrington Historical Society, The Mountaineers and Washington Trails Association. Two dozen academics, wilderness professionals and former Forest Service employees from Washington, Oregon and elsewhere urged Congress to let the court order stand.

On the House floor, DelBene spoke of the March 22 mudslide near Oso and said saving the lookout was one way to help with the rebuilding.

“In the days after the tragedy occurred, members of the community and the mayor of Darrington asked for support on issues important to the region,” DelBene said. “One of their requests to our congressional delegation … was for our help to pass this bill.”

The 6,500-foot-high lookout opened in 1933, well before Congress designated the Glacier Peak Wilderness in 1964. Even before that, the hipped-roof cabin required extensive repairs and reconstruction, and the Forest Service during the 1990s considered condemning it.

The rugged and remote Glacier Peak is called the American Alps, with dense forests and active glaciers.

Nickas, of Wilderness Watch, said he was particularly worried that the four Washington lawmakers who pushed for the bill were Democrats. In the past, it was often Republicans who supported measures to circumvent wilderness designations.

For instance, the Green Mountain Lookout Heritage Preservation Act includes an amendment by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to make legal a parcel of land claimed by an individual inside the Andreafsky Wilderness in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The owner, a Vietnam veteran Alaska Native, built a cabin after he was mistakenly granted a deed for 80 acres by the Bureau of Land Management, which subsequently revoked the deed.

Nickas said he fears the Green Mountain legislation will embolden other lawmakers to redefine wilderness based on political expediency.

“We believe the Wilderness Act means what it says,” he said. “No more, no less.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @KyungMSong