Wanna rent a ranger station?

America's national forests are in the middle of a "heritage" crisis as historic structures fall victim to budget cuts, vandalism, and neglect. Northwest forests are not immune, but citizens can help. How about vacationing in a fire lookout this summer?
Crosscut archive image.

Upper Sandy Guard Station.

America's national forests are in the middle of a "heritage" crisis as historic structures fall victim to budget cuts, vandalism, and neglect. Northwest forests are not immune, but citizens can help. How about vacationing in a fire lookout this summer?

As I've written previously, despite major national, state, and local government programs to promote historic preservation and protection of landmarks, public agencies often come up short when it comes to their own stewardship of such resources. Further evidence of that is in a recent Washington Post story that painted a grim picture of what's happening in our National Forests. Citing a new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Post reported that "millions of historic sites, crumbling and collapsing in national forests around the country, are in danger of being lost forever." And the Pacific Northwest's forests are not immune to the trend.

The short version is that budget and personnel cuts and shifts have caused the National Forest Service to fall behind in taking care of heritage sites in its trust, ranging from Civil War battlefields to old lodges and fire lookouts, from Native American archaeological sites to cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). According to the Post, the Trust reports that "only a small slice of about 2 million 'cultural resources' that sit on 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service have been properly preserved."

Their deterioration, says the Post, "has been accelerated by vandalism, theft, fire, damage from off-road vehicles and other recreation, as well as oil and gas extraction, mining, timber harvesting and grazing. ..." As funds have been shifted to other activities, like firefighting, heritage preservation has slipped down the priority list. Reports the Post: "In the current fiscal year, $14 million of the Forest Service's $4.4 billion budget — 0.3 percent — is devoted to heritage programs."

In trying to get a picture of the challenges in this part of the country, I talked with Rick McClure, archaeologist and heritage program manager for Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington and Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.

He agrees there are major problems. One reason is that many of the Forest Service's own facilities have become historically significant. Indeed, a number of Washington's national forests celebrate their centennials this year, including Columbia (now Gifford Pinchot), Chelan, Snoqualmie, Wenatchee, and Okanogan, which were created by executive orders in 1908. They are full of forest service infrastructure — from ranger stations to guest lodges — that not only serve forest service employees but people who use the forests for recreation and retreat. An inventory of historic Forest Service buildings in Washington and Oregon listed over 1,500 of them. Some were built by famous architects, some are important by virtue of age, others represent design styles that are considered significant, not the least of which are CCC buildings of the 1930 and '40s.

McClure told me that in his personal opinion, "the biggest impact to our historic buildings has been agency downsizing. We have vacant administrative complexes across the region that include National Register-listed and eligible buildings. It's a struggle to keep these buildings occupied and maintained."

Vacancy is the enemy of preservation because mothballed buildings can quickly deteriorate and are subject to vandalism and theft. McClure points to the Oak Grove Ranger Station complex in Oregon, which features 10 '1930s-era CCC buildings. The complex was trashed by vandals who stole copper wiring and plumbing and even ripped off (as in both literally removed by force and stole) the metal roof of a barn presumably to sell for scrap. There is no money for repair.

And the Forest Service has made occupancy of some buildings problematic. They used to rent national forest residences to employees at a discount, but a recent edict put an end to that practice. Employees now must pay market rates, making it more expensive for many employees to live on site, says McClure. His rent in Trout Lake went up $200 per month because the new rate was set by the rental market in tourist mecca Hood River. That's a big hit to an employee's pocketbook and has the added effect of forcing forest service employees to commute longer distances, which hardly helps the carbon footprint.

One partial solution has been to keep some of the Forest Service's wonderful structures in use by renting them out to the public. A Web site details the charming and sometimes remote Northwest national forest facilities you can rent, ranging from cozy log cabins to lookouts perched on mountaintops. The fees are cheap, sometimes as little as $25 for a group. The program helps pay for upkeep, but not all worthy and historic structures are rentable. McClure joked that the title of this story should be: "Wanna Buy a Ranger Station?"

Another option is public/private partnerships in which the Forest Service finds long-term tenants who fund restoration and maintenance of facilities. An example is the mountain search and rescue group Crag Rats, who lease the historic 1889 Cloud Mountain Inn on Mount Hood for their headquarters.

Such private money is vital. According to the Post, the National Trust's president, Richard Moe, says that "in 2006, private groups gave $32 million toward preservation projects on forest service land, more than twice what the federal government spent. ..."

Other preservation challenges include differences between wilderness advocates and preservationists. One of the most endangered Forest Service structures in his purview, says McClure, is the Upper Sandy Guard Station along the Timberline Trail on Mount Hood. It was built by the CCC to protect a watershed. It is now a designated wilderness area, and the station has fallen into disrepair. Wilderness backers would like to see the cabin "melt back" into the landscape, McClure says. On the other hand, preservationists would like to save it, but "unless someone goes into guerilla activity, it's going to fall down in three years," predicts McClure. The roof is already starting to collapse.

There are success stories. One is the Gotchen Creek Ranger station, the oldest building in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Built in 1910 during the era when rangers rode on horseback, it is being restored and readied for the rental program. The building is north of Trout Lake near Mt. Adams. Last year, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the Post, current Forest Service management does not see a crisis:

Joel Holtrop, deputy chief for the national forest system, shrugged off suggestions that his agency lacks the money for historic preservation. "We have a large, diverse mission and many programs we're responsible for. Heritage resources is one," he said. "We need to make sure all of our resource programs ... have the ability to compete appropriately for scarce federal dollars."

The National Trust report [PDF] concludes that the Forest Service has preservation on the back burner, despite its duties under the National Historic Preservation Act:

While the Forest Service has identified nearly 325,000 cultural resource sites within the System, the agency lacks the will, statutory guidance, and funding to adequately care for these known sites and to identify and evaluate the remaining 80 percent of Forest Service lands that have not been surveyed for cultural resources.

According to the Post, the Trust wants Congress to nearly double the agency's historic preservation budget. In the meantime, Northwest residents can perhaps celebrate the forests' centennial with a growing awareness that stewardship doesn't come for free and that the heritage of these places is now, like the forests, a valuable asset not to be neglected.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.