Jewels shimmer In the high country of North Cascades National Park. Flickering under summer's sun and rimmed by snow-heavy crags, these pockets of water have provided many with their finest, if not their first, experiences with a fishing rod.
It's not entirely a natural experience, though, as these high-country lakes initially were barren. That began to change in the late 1800s, when the first backcountry forays were taken to stock these lakes with non-native trout. Since then it's become practically an annual ritual for volunteering anglers to tote containers of rainbow and cutthroat trout up into the park's officially designated wilderness to seed the lakes with fish they could later hook and cook over a flickering campfire.
For the past 40 years or so the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has directed these stocking operations, intent on retaining a backcountry experience that sons and daughters could chase as memorably as did their parents and grandparents.
But without congressional intervention, that North Cascades National Park experience could fall to the wayside, as park managers believe continued stocking with non-native fish species is contrary to their mission to manage the park and its waters unimpaired for the next generation. But such a halt would not be precedent setting. Indeed, other parks that once stocked fish and actually ran hatcheries -- places like Yellowstone and Yosemite -- long ago did away with those operations. Today North Cascades National Park stands, to the best of Superintendent Chip Jenkins' knowledge, as the last national park with a stocking operation involving non-native fish.
Which brings us to the park's decision to halt the practice.
Under a Record of Decision approved in December, park managers on July 1 will ban fish stocking in as many as 42 high-country lakes unless Congress intervenes, a move that would throw into question whether national parks are to be managed as a national collection of unique landscapes and experiences or whether local control can dictate how a park is managed.
"Our Park Service Management Policies specifically say that we will not stock non-native species, we will not do anything that is in derogation of the values or the resources of the park unless specifically authorized by Congress," said North Cascades Superintendent Jenkins, who also believes the stocking runs contrary to the National Park Service Organic Act and the Redwoods Act of 1978. "So if this is something that Congress wants us to do, then we need that authority to implement. If we don’t get that authority by July 1, and that’s where I think tension is rising, then we will move to stop the practice."
Tension indeed. When the Park Service back in the 1980s talked about halting the stocking program, the state of Washington threatened to send a squadron of fish-toting helicopters into the high country of North Cascades to salt the lakes with fish from the air, according to Superintendent Jenkins.
"It kind of got ridiculous," he told the Traveler. "Then it went all the way up to the (NPS) director and then the assistant secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks. The Park Service was directed to work cooperatively with the state, do a research project, are there any adverse impacts happening, and based up on that research develop a fisheries management plan.
"So, there were 12 years worth of research done, and the research found a variety of things. In some lakes there were significant adverse impacts happening. In some lakes, given current techniques, we could not detect any impacts," the superintendent said.
"That suite of lakes, where the Park Service could not detect any impacts from non-reproducing, low-density populations of fish is where we would allow stocking to continue with non-reproducing low densities, if we had legislative authority. And, just to make it more complex, we would need to continue to monitor what was going on, and if we did detect significant adverse affects, then we would look at changing the practices.”
Adverse impacts already noticed in some lakes include trout feeding on native salamanders. In some of the lakes, which are not the best habitat for trout as they lack much for the fish to eat, the trout have developed unusual eating habits.
"Many of these lakes are so low productivity, the fish are almost on the edge of starvation," noted Superintendent Jenkins. "There’s not a lot for the fish to eat, so they go after everything. They eat shrews, they eat small mammals.”
Halting the stocking program would not bring a halt to fishing in North Cascades. Indeed, the park's rivers and streams, which harbor steelhead trout, threatened bull trout, char, and five species of salmon, among other species, are open to fishing. And there are four large, low-elevation lakes that are part of a reservoir system that would continue to offer angling for species such as rainbow and cutthroat trout as well as freshwater cod and kokanee salmon.
But fishing the park's high-country lakes has been in families for generations, and thus rises the opposition to the park's intentions. Congressman Doc Hastings, R-Washington, has in the past introduced legislation to require the fish stocking to continue, but the measures have failed to gain passage. He is expected to try to push a bill to that effect through before July 1. If passage comes after July 1, it could create some tense moments for the Park Service.
Superintendent Jenkins senses Congress's lack of interest to date in pursuing the legislation arises from a desire to have a "national" system of national parks. In recent years -- particularly in the wake of the uproar over the editing of the 2006 version of the Park Service's Management Policies -- there seems to have been a deliberate concern that parks not be managed individually but rather as a national system, he says.
"I think if we are truly the last national park where there is fish-stocking, that’s part of the discussion that has been going on. People have differing opinions of the wisdom of providing the authority to allow that stocking to go on here,” he said.
But that's not to say that the superintendent doesn't appreciate the magical experience of heading into the high country with rod in hand.
"These are high mountain lakes, which is a very wonderful experience," said Superintendent Jenkins. "That’s part of the dilemma here for me. The people who volunteer to stock the lakes and who enjoy fishing up there, they really love the North Cascades, they really love the park, and they have very fond memories of their father or grandfather taking them and teach them how to fish. I believe I understand how hard that is for them” to let it go.