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An Enduring Promise: North Cascades National Park at 50

An Enduring Promise: North Cascades National Park at 50

Like most tales of land use policy, the creation of the North Cascades National Park (NCNP) was a long, bitter battle between opposing social forces. Government agencies, extraction industry companies, and the conservationist movement had their own ideas about how we should administer this vast and sublime landscape. A clash was sure to follow.

The creation (or perhaps evolution) of the NCNP is more than a historical example of public land use legislation. It also provides great insight into the early environmentalism movement. Dwarfed by the post-war American industrial juggernaut, a small group of outdoor enthusiasts and academics faced opposition that would make weaker Americans shrug in defeat and find something else—something easier—to champion. But these men and women felt that the North Cascades were so important and so beautiful that the battle to protect them was paramount. They would not back down and they would not waver.

The events that led up to the establishment of the NCNP have been exhaustively detailed in the new book Crown Jewel Wilderness by writer and outdoor enthusiast Lauren Danner. Published just in time for the 50th anniversary of the park’s creation, her book is a brilliant bit of historic journalism. It’s a big park and a big story, and Danner covers it with meticulous detail and a sympathetic tone for the people involved. It’s not a breezy afternoon read, but if you’re a policy junkie like me, this book is as good as it gets.

Big stories need the stage set, and for this one we can set the wayback machine to the late-19th century. As people settled in the American West, they became enamored with its wild places. The most notable of these places were deemed worthy of preservation, and in 1872 president Ulysses S Grant signed into the law the creation of Yellowstone National Park. The first of its kind, it set a precedent for setting aside public lands in perpetuity. It solidified the belief that America is defined by its land as well as its law. A new understanding of what America means swept across the culture.

In 1890, Sequoia National Park was established despite the obvious value of its timber. It was quickly followed by Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake. The American people had decided that places of outstanding natural beauty were as much our national heritage as the Liberty Bell and deserved similar respect. It was presidential outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt who really got the ball rolling in creating national parks. But that ball rolls slowly and it wasn’t until Woodrow Wilson’s administration that we formally adopted national parks in the Rocky Mountains, Hawaii, Denali, Acadia, Zion, and the Grand Canyon.

The 1920’s and 1930’s saw even more lands set aside for preservation, from Bryce Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns to Shenandoah and the Everglades and many more in between. Preserving America’s places of outstanding natural beauty was a patriotic duty. America was framed as a place of kind-hearted people and economic opportunity, and filled with natural wonders. Each aspect complemented the other.

In the wake of World War II, America found itself the supreme global superpower. With this surety came an unprecedented industrial explosion. The 1950’s were an era of unmitigated American confidence. With her social woes swept under the rug of economic prosperity, a new American sense of self emerged. This was an America of superhighways and skyscrapers. It was an America of smog-belching factories and a galaxy of successful small businesses.

It was in this America that the first murmurings of creating a North Cascades National Park began. Washingtonians were understandably proud of the North Cascades. Visitors were said to have lauded the mountains of the North Cascades as “greater than Switzerland’s”, an apt compliment that should have stuck in the minds of local and national legislators alike. Nonetheless, all petitions to set aside the area in perpetuity had failed.

Then, there came a champion—and he  would be followed by more champions.

Bob Marshall’s Dream

Bob Marshall. Courtesy Forest History Society, Durham, NC

In 1939, a man named Bob Marshall hiked the challenging trails and snowy slopes of the North Cascades and was captivated. Bob wasn’t just any hiker, though. He was the Director of Recreation and Lands for the US Forest Service and a life-long advocate for wilderness. And what he saw convinced him that the North Cascades needed to be protected. And the way he figured, he was exactly the person to do it.

Marshall began putting wheels in motion, but shortly after his visit he died unexpectedly of heart failure. He was only 38 years old.

Marshall’s dream lived on among some US Forest staff, but the in the booming 1950’s a national push emerged to reclassify protected areas for mixed use—forestry, mining, and maybe some recreation if it could be fit in. With hundreds of thousands of acres of mature forest recently locked away by the creation of Olympic National Park, timber companies were eyeing easy pickings nearby. And Glacier Peak was nearby.

The US Forestry Service was planning to reclassify vast swaths of the area around Glacier Peak for commercial use. In order to appease the outdoorsmen, mountaineers and aesthetes, the Forestry Service decided that all the areas above (usable) tree line would be protected. Everything else in the areas they outlined could be harvested.

Recreational visitors (hunters, fishers, climbers, and hikers) balked. Who wants to fish or hunt in a clear-cut? And who wants to climb to the summit of a federally protected mountain just to look down upon a denuded moonscape? They argued that the area should be protected in all its aspects, that the lush forests that roll between the peaks like a mighty green river are as intrinsically a part of the landscape as the icy granite cliffs that rise above. To sacrifice one is to lose them both.

Photo courtesy of North Cascades NPS Complex Museum Collection (NOCA 19633a)

Among the parties interested in reclassifying Glacier Peak for timber extraction was the Chelan Box Manufacturing Company. They manufactured wooden fruit baskets: the type used to harvest apples and display them at markets. Manufacturing fine fruit baskets was good business, but it was even better if you could verticalize the market, so Chelan Box wanted to harvest their own timber and process it in their own mills. Not only would their cost of goods plummet, but they could also contract out any excess resources.

This made perfect sense, but like every other market verticalization it tended to cause unwanted results in the world at large. In this case, verticalization caused Chelan Box to lean on the US Forestry Service about reclassifying Glacier Peak and devastating the area around Stehekin. Chelan Box needed timber, and Glacier Peak was blanketed with it.

The US Forestry Service is charged with managing public lands to their “most appropriate” use. Among those uses are recreation, fishing, wildlife protection, water, and wilderness—as well as forestry, dams, and mining. It wasn’t hard to fathom why the Forestry Service might be swayed to find clear-cutting some public lands “most appropriate”. Corporate influence in American politics is as old as George Washington, and Chelan Box was just one in a long line of extraction industries that lobbied the Forestry Service with clockwork regularity.

There was another option, of course. Glacier Peak could be set aside by the National Park Service. Even the most ardent conservationist agreed that allowing the NPS to manage the lands was better than letting the Forestry Service do it –  but only marginally so.

By the 1950’s, America’s National Parks had become vastly popular among vacationing Americans. And the majority of those Americans came by car. To get Americans to their National Parks, the NPS paved thousands of miles of roads, erected hundreds of facilities and carved out untold thousands of parking spaces on America’s most spectacular landscapes. If the NPS took over Glacier Peak, its wilderness would surely be compromised.

So believed a growing group of local conservationists, including the Seattle-based Mountaineers. While they were wholly opposed to Forestry Service multiple-use plans for Glacier Peak, they weren’t particularly smitten with the National Parks Service, either. They admitted that keeping Glacier Peak completely wild meant visitors had to work hard to explore this magnificent area, but the stunning vistas were worth the effort and were worth fighting for.

The Grand Compromise

The legislation-signing photograph with President Johnson presenting the pen to Senator Jackson. Photo courtesy of North Cascades NPS Complex Museum Collection (NOCA16997)

And so the players took the stage. The US Forestry Service and their friends in the timber and mining industries faced off against the National Park Service and the tenacious conservation groups that had sprung up to defend the mountains. The Forestry Service (as well as local timber companies and regional government leaders) insisted on preserving the industries and jobs that they argued were in peril if too much public forest land remained locked away.

The conservationists began their own efforts, which involved a cohesive public awareness campaign. Intrepid photographers (including Ansel Adams) took to the hills to show everyone what was at stake. Citizen committees were formed to counter industry claims about the timber employment issues and the potential recreation revenue that might replace it. The North Cascades, they argued, was as valuable and as fragile as the Grand Canyon or any of the other National Parks, and they contended it was patriotic to protect them.

As the years rolled on, assessors from the Forestry Service and National Parks created their own maps of the entire region, from the Mount Baker Wilderness in the north to Stehekin in the south. The battle for Glacier Peak had suddenly expanded to include the whole of the North Cascades. The maps changed with regularity as the tides of war shifted between the various interests.

In the early 1960’s, the conservation movement started becoming the environmental movement, with an agenda to not only preserve wild places but to curb pollution and reduce our impact on habitat. They had a sympathetic ear in the new president, and when John F. Kennedy learned about plans to preserve the North Cascades he took a long hard look at the maps. Kennedy was vividly aware of the rivalry between the US Forest Service and the National Park Service. He knew the rivalry would continue unabated unless he acted, so he acted.

He directed the creation of a comprehensive inter-departmental study that went way beyond what the USFS, the NPS, or the 86th and 87th Congress had tried. After years of research, meetings, and political wrangling, the report recommended 14 actions:

  • Establish four new Wilderness areas—Alpine Lakes, Okanogan, Enchantment, and Mount Aix—totaling 720,000 acres;
  • Enlarge the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area by 39,000 acres;
  • Establish a North Cascades National Park totaling 698,000 acres;
  • Enlarge Mount Rainier National Park by 7,000 acres and provide for coordinated management between the park and surrounding National Forest lands;
  • Declassify three limited areas—Alpine Lakes, Cougar Lake, and Monte Cristo Peak;
  • Provide for an increase of 228,000 acres of National Forest lands to be placed under normal multiple-use administration by the Forest Service;
  • Increase the available commercial forest land by 56,000 acres and increase the available commercial saw-timber by 1.5 billion board feet, thus providing a net benefit to the timber industry despite the creation of new Wilderness areas and a new National Park;
  • Provide for a 900-mile system of scenic roads and several thousand miles of trails.
  • Establish a Wild River in the Skagit Basin;
  • Provide for adequate camping, picnicking, winter sports, boating and other recreation facilities, including fishing and hunting opportunities, in anticipation of much greater population pressure and use;
  • Provide for timber management and needed research that will minimize erosion, land scarring, adverse effects on the natural beauty of the landscape, and accomplish prompt regeneration;
  • Involve no removal of lands from the tax rolls, no acquisition costs, no change in distribution of National Forest receipts, no impairment of operations of Seattle City Light on the Skagit River, and no significant adverse effects on the livestock industry, on commercial or sport fishing. There would be some adverse effects on hunting, and there could be on mining if significant future discoveries occur in the area proposed for a National Park.
  • Provide substantial net economic advantages from creation of a North Cascades National Park through increases in tourism and the expenditures, wages, and employment generated thereby, and by capital outlays to develop the National Park, with resulting employment and wages; and
  • Provide substantial economic benefits through the construction, development costs, maintenance, and employment required to establish the recommended scenic road system, and from the expenditures and employment generated by increased driving for pleasure.

It reads like a compromise, but it was an enormous win for the conservation cause and the National Parks Service. Glacier Peak and the rest of the North Cascades would be protected from wholesale commercial exploitation in perpetuity. The plan stitches together vast swaths of the North Cascades into national parks and wilderness areas. While national park status meant some road building and visitor infrastructure, the results were amenable to visitors and conservationists alike. And the enormous new wilderness areas meant that huge sections of the North Cascades would remain untouched by roads or commercial exploitation.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 (which passed the House with a vote of 374-1!) framed how these Wilderness Areas would be administered. It was a bold statement:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Crest. Photo by John D’Onofrio

This unequivocal recognition of the value of wilderness was the grease on which the North Cascades National Park Act rolled into fruition on October 2, 1968. There were many people and many organizations that worked for nearly two decades to make it happen. Danner’s book details all the colorful characters who stood up and stared down the might of American corporate interests to create what we now recognize as the “Crown Jewel” of the Pacific Northwest. There is far too much to recount here in detail, so I recommend you read the book to learn more.

In the end, the dream that Bob Marshall had after those many Cascade hikes in the 1930’s came true. His vision is shared by everyone who visits this magnificent mountain range. Long may it reign.

Ted Rosen is a member of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee and has been a champion of land conservation since his youth in the industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey. He enjoys writing, day hikes, photography, guitar, and the occasional pale ale.

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