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Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

William O. Douglas and the fall of the wild

  • William O. Douglas

    Wikimedia Commons

    William O. Douglas

Recent weeks have seen a lot of controversy about the fate of the historic U.S. Forest Service lookout atop Green Mountain near Darrington.

At the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Judge John Coughenour ruled that the lookout, originally installed in the 1930s and in recent decades a popular hiking destination, must be removed to comply with environmental laws governing the actions of man in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

The case was brought by a Montana-based conservation group. Its members argued that the use of helicopters in recent lookout reconstruction efforts had violated the Wilderness Act.

As with most matters wilderness, emotions are powerful while the legal and political calculus is complex.

William O. Douglas, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975, wrestled with similar questions. Last month marked the 40th anniversary of his celebrated dissent in a case where he is sometimes described as having recognized the legal standing of trees.

It's worth revisiting now in light of the controversy unfolding atop Green Mountain.

Douglas grew up in Yakima. He later wrote how time in the nearby mountains developed in him a strong body, mind and spirit. The Mineral King case focused on whether the Sierra Club had standing to challenge a plan by The Walt Disney Co., which then wanted to develop a ski resort in a remote mountain valley, long since absorbed into California's Sequoia National Park.

Douglas noted that the law extends the rights and protections of individuals to certain inanimate objects, including ships and corporations.

"So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life," he wrote. "The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes -- fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water -- whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger -- must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction."

To learn more about Douglas, his thoughts on wild lands and the role of government:

"Nature's justice: Writings of William O. Douglas," edited by James M. O'Fallon, available at Sno-Isle Regional Library.

"Liberty and Wilderness," an Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission film project about Douglas: www.williamodouglas.org.

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