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North Cascades National Park – Forty Years on the Map, Seventy Years in the Making
North Cascades National Park, part of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex in Washington, celebrates its 40th anniversary today, October 2. The park you see today is a calm, peaceful corner of America, standing like an unwavering sentinel on the Canadian Border. But beneath the serene landscape lies a story of a 70-year long fight to protect a jaw-droppingly beautiful part of this country.
The northern portion of the Cascades Mountains is a land of dramatic elevation changes. While some other mountain ranges might be taller, older, or more biologically diversified, few could be more charismatic than the North Cascades. With peaks that rear 7,000 feet above the valleys and soar to as much as 10,000 feet, this area is often called the American Alps.
The North Cascades landscape is incredibly rugged, largely because glaciers sculpted and scoured valleys, peaks, and numberless rock fingers and faces. North Cascades still has about 300 glaciers, the greatest concentration of any national park outside of Alaska.
This is not a landscape to take lightly. On the contrary, the North Cascades are intimidating and hold their secrets tightly. It wasn’t until 1972 that the first east-west highway north of Stevens Pass was opened through these mountains, and some areas remain so remote and wild that few people ever venture there.
Humans have lived and traveled in this part of America for thousands of years, and the oldest artifact found in the park is more than 8,000 years old. Early residents and travelers in these mountains were various First Peoples, including Upper Skagit, Chilliwack, Lower Thompson, and Chelan. While some of these early inhabitants only used the mountains in a very transient way -- hunting here, fishing there, and gathering wherever -- some Native Americans did call the area home, using the mountain passes as trade routes between the Puget Sound and the Columbia River watersheds.
Archaeological evidence indicates that, while people hunted, gathered, and fished at all elevations in the area, most permanent settlements were in the lower elevations. Unfortunately, smallpox and other epidemics decimated the Native Americans starting in the late 1800s. Even today the Native American population in the region is far smaller than in the pre-European contact era.
Trappers and fur traders made their way into the North Cascades in the 1700s, attracted by the region’s plentiful marten, beaver, lynx, and other furbearers. Even after these extensive forays into the wilderness, maps still showed various "Unexplored Territories" in the mountains late in the 1800s. In fact, when Otto Klement traversed Cascade Pass in 1877 he was only the second non-Native person ever to do that. An Army expedition sent into the mountains in 1882 was forced to retreat after just 22 days.
Miners and loggers moved into the area in the late 1880s, particularly after gold was discovered on Ruby Creek in 1870. While the gold rush petered out in 1880, silver and lead deposits were found elsewhere in the North Cascades and mining continued. The capricious weather, extreme transportation and logistical hurdles, and a sagging metals market eventually closed the mines for good in the 1950s.
Logging began in earnest during the 1870s, but the timber barons made little headway in the higher elevations. Indeed, the rugged terrain and the region’s poor transportation system kept most logging confined to the lower elevations and most accessible places. Logging never did become important to the local economy.
Settlements sprang up on the Stehekin, Cascade and Skagit Rivers by the late 1800s. While the inhabitants had a tenuous hold on life at best, the community of Stehekin boasted a 25-room hotel, post office, and school. Wagon roads gradually trickled into the fringes of the area, but even today, Stehekin is inaccessible by road.
Hydroelectric dams were built in the North Cascades, beginning with one on the Stagit River in the 1920s at the Cedar Bar Community. It was not uncommon for families -- especially in the Stehekin community -- to have their own small waterwheel. In the 1960s, a larger hydro plant was finally built along Company Creek to supply the village with power.
Seattle City Power, the main electric utility for the Seattle metro area, has built three dams along the Stagit River. The Gorge Creek Dam was finished in 1924, and the Diablo Dam was completed in 1930. Ross Dam, which dates to 1949, became one of the tallest dams in the area when it was refurbished and stretched 540 feet high. Gorge Dam was also redone, and the newest installment opened for business in 1961.
The original idea for a national park in the North Cascades can be traced to tourists who journeyed to Lake Chelan, a 55-mile long lake occupying a glacier-carved trough. The gorgeous landscape reminded these visitors of Switzerland, Norway, and other places of scenic renown. Their experiences led some to suggest that the area be set aside for other people to enjoy.
Not everyone was pleased with the idea of creating a national park in the North Cascades. One notable opponent of the proposed park was L.H. Woodin, a local businessman who rightly concluded that a park would restrict his ability to sell land in the area. Largely due to Woodfin’s protestations, the first proposal to create a park in the North Cascades went nowhere.
In the 1890s, with Theodore Roosevelt in the White House, many Americans were drawn to the conservationist approach to resources management. That is to say, more and more people rejected the robber baron, “future-be-damned” approach to resource use and instead began to endorse conservation management based on science and sustainable yield principles. (The multiple use, sustainable-yield management principles that the Forest Service uses today evolved from this kind of thinking.) It remained that some influential individuals, such as John Muir, were ardent preservationists. Instead of a “use it wisely” approach to land management, preservationists wanted land preserved in its pristine condition with as little human meddling as possible.
President Grover Cleveland established the Washington Forest Reserve on February 22, 1897. This reserve, which included land on both the eastern and western sides of the North Cascades, was eventually transferred to the Forest Service in 1905. In the landmark year of 1906, a North Cascades National Park was proposed again, this time by a Canadian artist. His proposal gained support from numerous organizations in the Seattle area, including chambers of commerce. But residents of the Lake Chelan area, who would be living in the middle of the proposed park, viewed it as a dire threat to the local economy. The artist who proposed the park floated the idea of allowing mining, but it was to no avail. The worried locals carried the day, and thus the conservationist-mindset won a second round.
1916 rolled around, and with it another attempt to create a North Cascades National Park. This time, oddly enough, the proposal was shot down by the fledgling National Park Service, which was overburdened by too many parks and too little money to manage them. Moreover, there were worries that the creation of another park close to Mt. Rainier might somehow dim Mt. Rainier’s appeal. (Some locals went so far as to say that the proposed park was "indefensible nonsense.") And so the park proposal failed for a third time.
During the 1930s and 1940s, as the National Park Service expanded its holdings, various committees and commissions repeatedly considered the idea of a North Cascades National Park. In 1934, one report went so far as to say that the park would "outrank in its scenic, recreational, and wildlife values, any existing national park and any other possibility for such a park within the United States."
But renewed efforts to create a national park in the North Cascades failed again and again. Politics, business interests, and the great divide between preservationists and conservationists conspired against the North Cascades National Park (or Ice Peaks National Park, as it was once called).
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Sierra Club and other environmental NGOs became involved in what could be described as one of the greatest dramas ever played out by the federal land management agencies. With wilderness preservation gaining traction at the same time that the demand for timber was rapidly increasing, the Forest Service was being pressured to both protect and use the North Cascades. Most of the land in question was mantled with old-growth forest, and much of it was roadless and manifestly of wilderness quality.
In 1959, the Forest service released a management plan for the North Cascades area. This plan, which emphasized resource extraction, so angered preservationists that David Brower, a rising Sierra Club leader, is said to have exclaimed, "Where are the blazes with which Bob Marshall marked the trail toward wilderness?!" Also in 1959, the National Parks (Conservation) Association, the Sierra Club, and other environmental NGOs again called for the creation of a North Cascades National Park. This time, it seemed that conditions were finally right for protection of one of America's last untouched landscapes.
But that land was under the control of the Forest Service, and the Forest Service was still so bothered by the Ice Peaks National Park proposal from the 1930s (Ice Peaks would have taken millions of acres out of USFS control), that the agency at first flatly refused to even speak to the National Park Service about a North Cascades park. In March 1959, Congressman Thomas Pelly of Washington intervened and directed NPS to work with the Forest Service to study the proposal. The Forest Service essentially told the Park Service to go jump in a lake, pointing out that the agency had managed the area just fine for the past 55 years and could continue to do so indefinitely. It is episodes like this that have led many preservationists and others to believe that the NPS and the Forest Service are, and always will be, “natural enemies” because the former operates by the “leave it alone” principle and the latter by the “use it wisely” principle.
Over the next few years, the Forest Service pressed onward with its plans to log the mountains while the National Park Service (now with influential Congressmen on its side) considered how a North Cascades National Park might be established. Finally, in 1963, a breakthrough emerged. In what has been called the “Treaty of the Potomac,” the Forest Service and the Park Service agreed to settle some of their longstanding disputes. North Cascades was on that list.
Public hearings were conducted throughout the fall of 1963, and while much progress was made, the two agencies still fought tooth and nail over who would control what. Finally, in January 1966, a report was released. The report did recommend creating a national park, but the Forest Service seemed to backslide on the report's findings when top officials said "We believe strongly that [a park] is neither necessary nor desirable."
More inter-agency dickering took place over the next few months. The idea of creating both a national park and a national recreation area was floated, but the chairman of the report was not happy, calling the Forest Service's positions "inaccurate, slanted, misleading, and [putting] the main emphasis on a Recreation Area.”
In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, one of the most influential pieces of environmental legislation ever enacted. By creating the National Wilderness Preservation System, Congress signaled its desire to preserve large tracts of roadless land in pristine condition. This preservationist inclination markedly improved the odds of creating a national park in the sprawling wilderness of the North Cascades.
On March 20, 1967, Senator Henry Jackson of Washington introduced a bill to create North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area. This seemed to placate almost everyone involved in the interminable battle over the North Cascades. The National Park Service would assume control of both units. Ross Lake would be in the middle of the national park, thus protecting Seattle City Power's dams and related interests.
That doesn't mean that everyone was happy. Sedro-Woolley mayor William O. Pearson did not like "the interference of the Sierra Club in its attempts to force us to change our mode of living, in its attempts to curtail our economic and recreational activities." Congress received more than a thousand letters on the issue.
Finally, after many months of hearings and backroom deals, North Cascades National Park Service Complex became a reality. President Lyndon Johnson signed the enabling legislation into law on October 2, 1968, and one of the longest and most bitterly fought environmental battles in America drew to a close.
Today, thanks to the Washington Wilderness Act of 1988, about 83% of North Cascades National Park is preserved as the Stephen T. Mather Wilderness. North Cascades is popular with backpackers, climbers, canoeists, kayakers, fishermen, and of course, all lovers of beauty and solitude.