When I set out to cover the effort to save Olympic National Park’s Enchanted Valley Chalet last week, I thought the toughest part would be the 13-mile hike.
Worse, I found after six hours on the trail, was a bizarre blockade on press freedom – the likes of which I’d never experienced outside a military base or murder scene.
The scene I found at the end of the hike was anything but. 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 movers were accomplishing the herculean task of pushing a three-story log structure away from the river that had undercut its foundation by eight feet.
It had the makings of a great story. Strangely enough, it was a story the park service wanted told through one person – Rainey McKenna, a spokeswoman sent from park HQ 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 was safety, and yet she and the cook crew moved about freely. In fact, the cook crew was busy frying up dinner in the restricted area, about 40 feet from the chalet when she insisted full collapse could happen any time. Could I stand by the cooks, 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 safety vest and you accompany me? No.
This did not bode well for the multimedia coverage I had planned. Packing light, I left my camera’s zoom lens at home and was relying on my smart phone for video (also no zoom).
More than one mover offered to take my phone and get some close-up footage. Nope, that would also not be allowed, McKenna said.
I wandered over to a mover petting the pack animals outside the yellow tape. As I snapped photos, we chit-chatted about horses. McKenna 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. Everyone from the Oregonian to KING 5 have given ink or airtime to the moving project.
Our invitation mentioned only two restrictions on the press: No drones. No helicopters. I dutifully complied with both. I also sent two emails to the park’s public affairs office to discuss logistics for shooting video and photos. I never heard back on either.
McKenna said the Seattle Times and a few Seattle TV stations had expressed serious interest in attending. Usually, I don’t 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 view of McKenna and the two other 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.