Its name evokes visions of lofty, snow-covered crags and wild America. A place where few venture far off-road and where wild things roam, an untamed landscape rich with rewards if you have the mettle to explore its mountains.
And yet, while North Cascades National Park was designated in 1968, the park embraces an incomplete landscape, one that could be made more robust and attractive to visitors with the addition of nearly 238,000 acres, according to a group pushing for park expansion.
You wouldn't quickly come to think that a park of more than a half-million acres could be incomplete. But when you look at the lay of the land, and at the natural wonders that lie just beyond its boundaries, that conclusion isn't so difficult to reach.
“What essentially happened back in the '58 to '68 period, there was a lot of horse trading about what should be in and what shouldn't be in," explains John Miles, a professor at Western Washington University who is a member of the North Cascades Conservation Council that developed the American Alps Legacy expansion proposal for the park. "Some areas that folks at the time, leaders of the time like Polly Dyer and others, thought should be in were ultimately excluded.
“So what has essentially happened is those people are still around and in their 90s, and so they said, ‘We want to finish the job,’" the professor went on. "'We want to finish the job' was essentially the position they took and add some areas that we thought should have been in the park in the first place."
Covering 504,780 acres and encompassing the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas, North Cascades holds within its existing borders towering mountains popular with climbers, glaciers and snowfields, alpine meadows, and forests that provide habitat for a rich, if not populous, array of wildlife. Black-tailed deer, small numbers of gray wolves, fishers, wolverine, black bear, and at least one grizzly bear, roam the park's landscape.
That the national park sandwiches Ross Lake NRA was the result of visions of hydroelectric power to feed Seattle and surrounding communities.
"The reason that it was designated as a recreation area instead of a park was that there was a proposal to raise Ross Dam by 100 feet higher than it presently is, which would have flooded a significant section around Ross Lake," says Professor Miles. "And so the area was placed in an NRA instead of put in park status."
Today, however, interest no longer exists to raise the height of the dam, according to the Conservation Council.
But it's not an easy park to experience. Outside of the Ross Lake NRA, no road dives very far into the landscape. Hiking, backpacking, and paddling are the best ways to see this landscape. As alluring as that landscape and wildlife might be, the park is not exactly user-friendly, notes not only the proponents of the expansion proposal, but also North Cascades Superintendent Chip Jenkins.
“I think one of the things we recognize is that the North Cascades National Park Complex, in many respects, it’s actually more like an Alaskan park than a Lower 48 park in that it is largely a wilderness park," the superintendent points out.
"When North Cascades was created, it was never intended that you would have that experience where you would drive through an entrance gate and you would drive up to that defining visual experience," he explains during a phone conversation. "And I think that is a contributing element to kind of the different relationship that the public has with North Cascades, compared with other parks.
“It’s not the only reason, but I think it’s one of the reasons. You don’t get into a car and drive to a place in the park and have that big, stunning view of a peak or of a glacier or what not."
Instead, as you drive north from Seattle on Interstate 5 you blow past a sign saying "North Cascades National Park," drive along state route 20 through Sedro-Wooley, which proclaims itself the "Gatewaty to the North Cascades," and some 50 miles on down the road you finally find yourself in ... Ross Lake NRA, not the national park.
“And you kind of spit out the other side (of the NRA), and I think for many people it was like, ‘Where were the North Cascades? We went through this thing called the Ross Lake Recreation Area, where are the North Cascades, what is that geographic area?'" says Superintendent Jenkins.
The expansion proposal would solve that dilemma by turning Ross Lake NRA into part of the national park proper.
According to Jim Davis, executive director of NCCC, most of the 238,000 acres his group wants added to North Cascades National Park are low-elevation lands in the NRA that frame Highway 20. Such an addition would ban hunting now allowed in areas of the NRA, but it also would make the park more user-friendly, particularly for families, he says.
"It’s primarily front country that we’re looking at adding to the park. There is some recreation in those areas now, but we envision quite a bit more recreation in the future," Mr. Davis explains. "We’re expecting that, ultimately, folks will be very glad that we don’t have hunting layered right on top of family recreation opportunities."
The park staff is expected to release later this week its general management plan for Ross Lake NRA. That document is expected to address accessibility to the national park through the NRA. Under the Park Service's draft environmental impact statement on the management plan, the preferred alternative called for "the North Cascades Highway corridor would function as a 'window on wilderness' where visitors would be provided with meaningful opportunities to see, experience, and learn about the North Cascades. The NPS would create a distinct sense of arrival to help visitors understand they have entered a unit of the National Park System.
The NPS would work with (Washington State Department of Transportation) and (Seattle City Light) to improve signage with the goal of informing people about services and recreational opportunities in the North Cascades NPS Complex. Redesigned and constructed entrances would serve as portals into the North Cascades. Dramatic viewsheds of the Skagit River, jagged mountain peaks, waterfalls and reservoirs would introduce visitors to the North Cascades along the highway corridor. The NPS would work to provide activities to entice people out of their vehicles via enhanced overlooks, the existing visitor center, and visitor facilities in partnership with Seattle City Light and the North Cascades Institute.
Once out of their vehicles, the NPS and partners would provide opportunities for enjoyment and learning, such as ranger-led tours, Diablo Lake tours, and numerous hiking trails. Visitors would be encouraged to venture further into the North Cascades on dayhikes, ranging from short accessible trails to more strenuous hikes that leave the highway corridor and venture into the wilderness.
Along with swallowing Ross Lake NRA, the expansion proposal calls for moving 143,058 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands into the park. Those acres include low-elevation rain forest along the Baker River, portions of the Cascade River, the headwaters of the Skagit River, and the landmark Liberty Bell outcrop found today in the Okanongan-Wenatchee National Forest on the eastern side of the national park.
In doing so, not only would the enlarged park be more attractive and accessible to visitors, says Mr. Davis, but it also would provide safer habitat for wildlife in that hunting would be banned.
"A big part of our motivation of doing this is to provide a real core wildlife habitat protection area," he says. "If you look at issues like wolves and grizzly bears and wolverines in the North Cascades, with grizzly bears they tend to get shot accidentally by bear hunters, and wolves are shot unfortunately by poachers. And so we really are looking at trying to identify some large protected areas where they could roam freely. And it also would increase watchable wildlife, which translates pretty quickly into increased visitation."
Of course, not everyone supports the proposal. Opposition by mountain bikers, hunters, folks who liked to walk their dogs or ride horses in some of the areas initially proposed for inclusion, such as the Golden Horn area in the Okonagan-Wenachee National Forest, led the Conservation Council to trim about 160,000 acres from its proposal. Some in the Methow Valley feared enlarging the park in their direction would bring too many tourists their way, and so the proposal was scaled back there, too. Others in the region, pointing to the great multiple-use opportunities currently available between the mix of Forest Service lands, NRA, and park proper, wonder whether there's a need to fix something that's not broken.
Still, the idea of a larger national park isn't a new one to the Park Service.
"In the recommendations that were put together back in the '50s and the '60s, even the Park Service said that the park boundaries should be larger, encompass many different features," says Superintendent Jenkins. "But ultimately the political compromises that led to the creation of the park created the boundaries where they were.
“What I also think is kind of interesting about the history here is this Highway 20 that bisects the park, when the boundaries were being discussed and when the park was actually created, the road did not actually cross the entire Cascades. It deadended up here at a place called Ross Dam," he adds. "Part of the deal, part of the political compromise, was federal funding to build the highway across the Cascades, and now we have this Highway 20 and it goes up and it goes over two passes, with really world-class scenery.
"It goes over Rainy Pass and Washington Pass and it goes by the prominent features of Liberty Bell. It’s somewhat evocative of going over Tioga Pass in Yosemite (National Park). Really, really stunning alpine national park quality scenery, and of course you’re in the (national) forest."
Not only would the proposed expansion raise the visibility of the national park, but it would be economically beneficial to surrounding communities, according to an economic analysis prepared for the Conservation Council by Thomas Power, a Montana-based economist who long has studied the value of environmental initiatives on local economies.
According to his analysis, an expanded North Cascades National Park by 2030 would more than quadruple annual spending by visitors and the Park Service in the region, from $15.1 million annually to $66.2 million; the number of jobs in the communities surrounding the park would nearly quadruple from 356 to 1,376; and personal income would triple, from $11.1 million to $33.2 million.
"The expansion of NCNP is intended to provide a much broader range of activities for visitors. This can be expected to keep those visitors longer in the park and increase the likelihood that they will spend one night or more within or outside the park in one of the gateway communities," reads one section of the report. "They then can return to the park to take advantage of more of the park’s recreational opportunities or spend time engaging in recreational activities associated with other public lands in the area or the recreational opportunities provided by private resorts in surrounding communities."
Driving that economic boost is the belief that rolling Ross Lake NRA into the national park will create both greater recognition of, and greater access to, North Cascades National Park. Currently, the park's annual visitation of roughly 20,000 is dwarfed by cross-state neighbor Olympic National Park, which in recent years has seen annual visitation bobbing around 3 million visitors.
Branding, you see, can make a difference.
"I think the American people, as connoisseurs of travel, they recognize the words ‘national park’ as indicating a caliber of experience or a level of quality that they go out of their way to try to experience, that they go out of their way to try to visit," says Superintendent Jenkins. "There’s a certain brand identity of the word 'national park.'
“You look at AAA maps, you look at Google maps, you look on your GPS in your vehicle, places that are identified as national parks, they’re pulled out and they’re highlighted," he adds. "That indicates something about the market demand, I guess.”
How far the expansion proposal advances remains to be seen. Mr. Davis has been working with the staff of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, with hopes she'll introduce legislation to make the expansion happen.
“Sen. Cantwell's staff is basically in a due dilligence mode at this point. Tie down all those loose ends and look to see if there are any major problems," he said. "We’re hopeful that she’ll come out with a bill very soon, although there’s nothing that promises that at this point.”