People of the Parks: The Legend and Legacy of Bill Lester

Every summer, Bill Lester would tell the same story.

Former Park Ranger Alan Cline remembers that during every summer orientation for seasonal rangers, Lester – his mentor – would tell the story about a family that visited Olympic National Park while he was a ranger there.

Bill Lester (Photo courtesy North Cascades National Park)

As the story went, one morning while tying his shoes, Lester greeted a couple and their son, who were passing by on their way to take a hike. He had a way of wrapping the laces around the ankles of his boots before he tied the knots, and days later, when the family returned, they told him what a fuss he had caused. The quiet little boy had seen those long laces, and got it into his head that the ranger’s method was absolutely the only way to tie a pair of shoes. “I’ve gotta get long laces, I’ve gotta tie my shoes that way,” the boy had said.

“You see, you never know who’s watching and what sort of impact you will have on people,” Lester would explain to the incoming backcountry rangers. The ranger from Port Angeles, WA. was a man who practiced what he preached.

In many ways, the long and illustrious career of Bill Lester personified the core challenge facing our National Parks. He devoted his life to finding the delicate balance between recreation and preservation in the parks of the Pacific Northwest, a struggle mirrored throughout the 52-million acres that comprise the United States’ National Park System.

Paula Ogden-Muse remembers Lester as “a true pioneer.” Ogden-Muse, who joined the Student Conservation Association in 1985 under his tutelage, says “the man lived and breathed wilderness and the park service.” Two of Lester’s signature accomplishments during the time Ogden-Muse knew him were his alpine re-vegetation program and his introduction of composting toilets in the backcountry.

Lester's Re-vegetation facilityin Marblemount circa 1978 (Photo courtesy of North Cascades National Park)
Lester’s Re-vegetation facility in Marblemount circa 1978 (Photo courtesy of North Cascades National Park)

The re-vegetation program was a ground-breaking attempt to repair damage to wilderness areas by raising native flora in a greenhouse at the Marblemount ranger complex and re-planting alpine regions that had been trampled by foot traffic and unwitting campers. Lester’s innovative experiments with composting toilets sought to minimize impact in wild areas of the park by providing designated places for human waste to keep it from spoiling fragile ecosystems – and other’s enjoyment of the backcountry.

Informed by his first-hand awareness of human impact in the backcountry, these initiatives aimed to mitigate the damage to backcountry habitat that he had observed and to prevent further destruction of resources.

Early in the park’s history, little was known about the impact of recreationalists traveling through the wilderness. Many people didn’t understand that their use of the parks was damaging the fragile ecology. When Lester began to work on these projects, he often did so with a shoestring budget and an impatience with bureaucracy, radiating a fervor for the parks that inspired many of his seasonal colleagues to return year after year.

Sweet Pickle Relish

Ogden-Muse recalls the early days of his experiments with composting toilets, when backcountry employees would help haul the human waste down from the receptacles in big plastic deli buckets labeled “sweet pickle relish,” sometimes hiking two miles with the bucket strapped onto their old aluminum pack frames, sloshing at their backs. “That’s how much you believed in Bill Lester,” she laughs. “People would do anything for Bill because he believed in that place so much.”

While the re-vegetation program and composting toilets were some of the most notable  innovations that Lester brought to the park service, his contributions went far beyond the alpine meadows he replanted. Bill was also an evangelist for environmental education.

“If you don’t learn something every day, then it’s your own darn fault,” Ogden-Muse remembers Lester saying. His tireless passion for sharing what he had learned in the wilderness defined the stocky, gruff ranger’s ethos, and eventually contributed to the creation of what is now The North Cascades Institute (NCI), an educational partnership made possible by North Cascades National Park and Seattle City Light.

Saul Weisberg, founder of The North Cascades Institute. Photo by Keely Killebrew
Saul Weisberg, founder of The North Cascades Institute. Photo by Keely Killebrew

Around 1984, when NCI co-founders Saul Weisberg and Tom Fleischner started thinking of using field-based school education as a tool to protect and promote the parks, they understood that their approach would cultivate change slowly. “It was not the tool that you would turn to in a crisis,” Weisberg explains, “but maybe for the next crisis, you would have educated citizenry who would stand up for things they believed in.” This concept of generational change resonated with Lester’s philosophy so much that when new superintendent John Reynolds came to the park in 1985, Lester became an outspoken advocate for the creation of the Institute.

Together, Lester and Reynolds hatched a plan to give Weisberg and Fleischner time to refine their ideas about environmental education, allowing the team to work part-time in empty office spaces. Soon the institute grew into a small tent-based field school for adults.

Though Lester passed away 20 years ago, the ripples of his focus on environmental education have turned into a tidal wave; last year NCI brought nearly 10,000 children, graduate students, and families to their Environmental Learning Center in North Cascades National Park, and this year they celebrated their 30th year of introducing thousands to the majesty – and vulnerability – of wilderness.

Mountain School

Mountain School is in session. Photo by Keely Killebrew
Mountain School is in session. Photo by Keely Killebrew

Walking along the bright path from the main campus of the institute to one of the little wooden shelters tucked amongst the vibrant flutter of vine maples, children’s giggles and joyful whoops of joy echo through the woods.

A world of discovery. Photo by Keely Killebrew
A world of discovery. Photo by Keely Killebrew

At NCI’s Mountain School, these fifth graders learn everything from identifying native tree species to the various processes of rock formation. In one game lead by an enthusiastic instructor, kids rambunctiously play rock-paper-scissors to ‘evolve’ between stages of forest succession before they eventually congregate in a conga line, chanting “Lichens, shrubs, and trees, yeah!”

In Executive Director Weisberg’s mind, the future of the parks will be in the hands of these children – not necessarily as parks employees, but as “business owners and doctors and lawyers and mechanics, who value public land and who value nature.”

On the path to environmental learning. Photo by Keely Killebrew
On the path to environmental learning. Photo by Keely Killebrew

After witnessing the last 30 years of the Institute’s work, Weisberg believes that the long days of hikes and discussions on native plant life cycles will have a lasting impact on these children,  just as the parks themselves have inspired the millions that have visited over the past century.

And that impressionable young boy who had been so obsessed with the way Bill Lester tied his shoes? He became a ranger, another part of the enduring legacy of a man who led by example and championed the grand vision of our National Parks.

Killebrew_Keely-2Keely Killebrew lives in Bellingham with her loyal dog Milo and a handful of courageous gals. She is an avid solo-traveler and enjoys a variety of pastimes such as rock climbing, flying helicopters, and trail-riding. If there’s one motto she lives by, it is “never say no to a wild adventure!”

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