Lake Roosevelt
Administrative History
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Family Vacation Lake: Recreation Planning and Management

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO) is primarily a place for people to play. A high proportion of its visitors has always been local residents, and in recent years more and more people are choosing to build homes adjacent to the recreation area boundary to take advantage of the many and varied opportunities for recreation on water and land. Recreation areas have sometimes been facetiously described within the National Park Service as "places to get wet," and even recent LARO Superintendents have viewed Lake Roosevelt in this way. [1]

LARO's recreational visitors focus on the water - on boating and swimming and on camping close to the lake shore during the short summer season. Land-based activities, too, have traditionally been aimed at outdoor fun. In the early years, playgrounds and horseshoe pitching areas were popular. Naturalists taught recreational skills such as snorkeling, and Disney movies were shown in the amphitheaters. Fishing has grown in popularity, and new opportunities such as rental houseboats and personal watercraft are increasingly popular with visitors.

Recreation planning and management at the national recreation area (NRA) have had to adapt to challenges such as low funding, jurisdictional disputes, and changing visitor activities over the decades.

swim beach
Swim beach at Kettle Falls, 1965. Photo courtesy of Spokesman-Review archives.

Who Visits Lake Roosevelt?

The people of no other country and no other age had ever had anything like the leisure, the discretionary income, or the recreational choices of the American people in mid-twentieth-century. It was overwhelming. . . . Even though they might not always have used this leisure to the best advantage, the American people had learned to play.

-- Foster Rhea Dulles, History of Recreation, 1959

Over the decades, LARO managers have initiated a number of studies to learn more about the "typical" visitor to Lake Roosevelt. What attracts people to the area, who are they, and what do they do once they arrive? The popularity of the nation's national recreation areas has grown significantly since the 1940s. By 1990, visits to NRAs accounted for 14 percent of total National Park System visits. [3]

After World War II, outdoor recreation increased tremendously nationwide, particularly water-based forms of recreation such as boating and water skiing. Causes of this growth included increases in the total population, per capita income, proportion of income spent on recreation, and leisure time, along with improved transportation. [4]

Visitation to Lake Roosevelt, however, was very light through the 1940s and the early 1950s, mostly because the reservoir was new, facilities were minimal, and area population was low. For example, in July of 1950 approximately 13,100 recreational visits were made to the NRA. About 90 percent of the use was by local people using simple temporary facilities constructed by the communities of Kettle Falls and Colville for picnicking and swimming. During the fall and winter months, hunters and float-plane pilots and passengers accounted for most of the recreational visits to Lake Roosevelt. Lake Roosevelt was simply overshadowed by Grand Coulee Dam, which was recording well over 300,000 visitors annually at that time. [5]

Visitation rose as Congress began to provide more funding for construction of visitor facilities. The area's population remained essentially rural, although in 1968 some 525,000 people lived within two hours of Lake Roosevelt. In the mid-1950s, Lake Roosevelt - promoted by the Park Service as the "Family Vacation Lake" - began to be discovered by travelers from outside the immediate area, sometimes by accident as they traveled through. In the north half, many of the visitors were from nearby Trail, British Columbia. In 1957, most of the visitors came from a fifty- to one hundred-mile radius, arriving on weekends by car. Day use remained primary; only 25 percent of LARO visitors remained more than one day. By 1962, over one thousand people per day were spending time at swim beaches. [6]

LARO Recreational Visits (top), Grand Coulee Dam Visitors (bottom).

Traveling through the Roosevelt Lake country, in the northeast corner of Washington state, is enough to make a modern motorist nervous. No view is blocked by a billboard, a hot dog stand or a Kozy Kabin Kamp. He may cross two Indian reservations without a chance to buy native beadwork from Japan. If he stops to eat lunch or take a swim, nobody shows up to tell him he's on private property or to collect for parking. Most travelers just aren't used to such treatment. . . . As tourists discover Roosevelt Lake — and as the small towns discover the tourist — the freshness of the country may disappear. Meanwhile the sightseer finds himself in an anachronistic setting, removed by many years from today's formal 'recreational area,' where he can enjoy an uncluttered view and can stop to fish or camp where he pleases.

-- Byron Fish, Ford Times, 1954

LARO staff has tried to increase and regulate visitation through management actions such as construction of visitor facilities, removal of floating woody debris from the lake, and enforcement of regulations. In some years, visitation to LARO has been noticeably affected by events outside the control of the Park Service. Such events and circumstances include the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, opening of the highway through the North Cascades in 1973, Spokane Expo '74, eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, value of the Canadian dollar, severe lake drawdowns, national gasoline shortages, improvement of the walleye fishery in the 1970s, overcrowding at other recreation facilities in eastern Washington, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) visitor facilities and attractions at Grand Coulee Dam, population shifts, and the weather.

In general, the majority of LARO's early visitors were day users, mostly family groups who lived in the vicinity of the lake. In 1962, park staff estimated that 10 percent of all visitors were in the area one hour or less, 50 percent spent one to four hours, 25 percent spent four to eight hours, and 15 percent spent one or more days within the recreation area. The peak period of use has always been from May to September. In more recent years, as the Spokane and Seattle-Tacoma populations have grown, a higher percentage of LARO visitation is drawn from these urban areas. [8]

A formal visitor survey conducted in 1978 through the University of Washington Cooperative Park Studies Unit helped LARO managers better understand the typical visitor. The study found that regional visitors chose to visit Lake Roosevelt in order to sightsee, visit Grand Coulee Dam, camp, and picnic. Family groups comprised 83 percent of the visitors. Most visitors had been to LARO six or more times and tended to visit the same site regularly. Thirty-two percent were from Spokane (and primarily used the central part of the recreation area), and 14 percent were local, but only 2.8 percent identified themselves as farmers or ranchers. About 13 percent were from Canada. At least half the campers and boaters fished during their visit. Only 15.7 percent camped in tents, and 17 percent of the boaters used non-power boats. In 1981, over half of LARO's visitors were children or teenagers, and 12 percent were Native American. [10]

Visitor Activities at LARO

water skiingunknown6,500 [9]

A 1996 visitor use survey found similar patterns. Washington residents made up 74 percent of the visitors, with only about 7 percent from the United States outside of the Pacific Northwest. About 46 percent were repeat visitors. The most popular activities were camping, swimming, motor boating, and fishing, followed by family gatherings, picnicking, sightseeing, and water skiing. Nearly 75 percent of the use still occurs between June and September, and the late afternoon and evening hours are the busiest. [11]

Visitation to LARO has increased dramatically since the 1950s, when the Park Service first began to provide facilities and access roads along the shores of Lake Roosevelt. Keeping statistics on visitor use is important in every park unit: visitation figures identify trends that help in making management decisions such as planning visitor facilities and as justification for requests for budget increases.

At LARO, the lack of entrance gates makes obtaining accurate estimates of visitation difficult. From the early 1940s until 1955, LARO's visitation was estimated as a percentage (10 or 20 percent) of the visitation figures kept by Reclamation for Grand Coulee Dam. Since then, more accurate visitation figures have been obtained by counting vehicles (using a varying person-per-vehicle multiplier) combined with actual counts or estimates at places such as boat launches, concessionaire facilities, private docks and mooring buoys, and campgrounds. In recent years, reductions are made for nonrecreational users. The counting methods were modified in 1957, the early 1970s, and 1992. In 1988, traffic counters replaced the older tube counters park-wide. Park staff is "very, very confident," according to LARO Program Assistant Roberta Miller, that they are understating and not overstating the visitation to the recreation area. [12]

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2003