WASHINGTON - April 13 - The Superintendent of Olympic National Park should be punished for deliberately violating the Wilderness Act and wasting an estimated quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer dollars in the process, says two public interest groups who successfully sued the park. The superintendent, William Laitner, tried to go ahead with his plan to helicopter pre-fabricated shelters into designated wilderness areas within the park, located in the northwest corner of Washington, in the face of clear written warnings from the groups, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Wilderness Watch, that his actions would violate the Wilderness Act and other laws.
“We believe that federal managers should be disciplined when they deliberately violate the law, especially laws that are central to their agency’s mission,” stated Sue Gunn, director of the Washington state chapter of PEER, who sent the letter to Laitner’s boss, Park Service Pacific Regional Director Jon Jarvis. “Failure to act in an egregious case like this sends a message that law-breaking by federal officials will be condoned or even rewarded.”
Last August, U.S. District Court Judge Franklin D. Burgess found that the Olympic National Park’s plan to erect two newly constructed trail shelters in park wilderness to be “a clear error of judgment” and in violation of the Wilderness Act. The court action was initiated by the three groups after the park announced it would proceed with the plan despite legal objections they had sent months earlier. After initially signaling that it intended to appeal Judge Burgess’s ruling, the Park Service dropped its appeal late last month, allowing the decision to become final.
In addition to acting in an “arbitrary and capricious” fashion, according to the court, Superintendent Laitner’s actions also cost taxpayers a considerable amount of money with nothing to show for it:
- Laitner spent an estimated $170,000 to build the prefab shelters even while soliciting public comments on whether the shelter plan was a good idea;
- The National Park Service will likely have to pay an estimated $30,000 in plaintiffs’ legal fees and expenses; and
- The federal government also spent tens of thousands more dollars on its own lawyers and staff time to deal with the Olympic fiasco.
“Too often, particularly in the Bush administration, officials suffer no negative career consequences for knowingly committing illegal acts; in some instances, agency lawbreakers are actually promoted,” Gunn added. “In our view, this is a far more serious breach of the public trust than the typical employee disciplinary action for things like doing your résumé on government time.”
The groups are also asking that Superintendent Laitner be required to undergo wilderness stewardship training. Back in 1988, Congress designated 95 percent of Olympic National Park as wilderness but the park still lacks a completed Wilderness Management Plan.