Lake Roosevelt
Administrative History
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Changing Stories: Interpretation
There are no outstanding natural, historic, archeological, or other features deemed sufficiently important to attract visitors. However, the features that do exist are of sufficient note that their proper and adequate "interpretation" will make the visitors' stay much more interesting and meaningful.

-- CODA, "Statement for Interpretation type document," 1957

The National Park Service has long considered basic interpretation of a park's natural and cultural resources an essential tool for enhancing public enjoyment of the park. The agency also believes that when visitors understand an area's resources through good interpretation, they are more likely to be concerned about protecting those resources. Until the early 1960s, however, the only interpretation available to visitors in the Lake Roosevelt area was that provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) at Grand Coulee Dam with only minimal input from Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO) personnel.

From the 1960s until the 1980s, much of the interpretation provided by LARO naturalists and rangers focused on recreational skills. When Interpretive Specialist Dan Brown arrived in 1988, the interpretive program was "not really all that well developed." He recalled that the park was "treated kind of like an urban recreation area — kite flying," with classes in skills such as paddling canoes and snorkeling. The focus of interpretation at Fort Spokane was on the military period only, leaving out many other important aspects of the site. Former Superintendent Gerry Tays agrees that interpretive efforts were "not getting their fair treatment." [2] The interpretive program at LARO has changed greatly since then.

Interpretation by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Americans and foreigners alike are fascinated by the story of Grand Coulee Dam. Since the 1930s, publicity has made it truly larger than life. Reclamation, having already experienced the public's great interest in the construction of Boulder Dam, built a grandstand for visitors to view the construction activity at Grand Coulee Dam. In 1936, two parking lots and vista points, one on each side of the Columbia River, provided vantage points of the construction, and eloquent guides lectured on the art and science of dam building. A construction model and a hydraulic model of the dam were displayed. Several hundred thousand people came to the site each year, and Reclamation made them feel welcome. From then until today, the emphasis of interpretation at the dam is upon the engineering achievements that the dam represents. For example, a 1998 Reclamation handout at the Visitor Arrival Center proclaims, "The creation of Grand Coulee Dam is a story of developing and using equipment of gigantic proportions, breaking records, taking risks and reaching unique and innovative solutions to build a giant among dams." [3]

The public provided a seemingly insatiable appetite for statistics about "the eight wonders of the world." People loved to hear how many pancakes the 3,000 to 6,000 workers ate each morning at breakfast or how many miles of tubes ran through the dam. They devoured pictures of the great structure, as high as a forty-six-story building, just five feet shorter than the Washington Monument, and they saw drawings of the 12.5 million barrels of concrete or envisioned them together in a train 500 miles long. Most popular were comparisons with the Great Pyramid of Egypt, or two, or three, or even four of them.

-- Paul Pitzer, Grand Coulee, 1994

In 1941, Reclamation began planning a museum to interpret the construction and purposes of Grand Coulee Dam. The agency offered space in the facility to the National Park Service for natural history exhibits and an office. Under the first interbureau agreement for managing Lake Roosevelt, signed that year, Reclamation agreed to provide guides and lecture services at the dam and to coordinate that activity with related services established elsewhere by the Park Service. This was reaffirmed in the 1946 Tri-Party Agreement. [5]

World War II curtailed tourism at the dam, however. Beginning in 1941, federal guards protected the dam day and night from sabotage, theft, and military attack. Fences blocked entry at both ends of the dam, and boats patrolled the waters of Lake Roosevelt. After the war ended, Reclamation built a tourist railroad (flatcars pulled by an engine) that carried tourists from the west vista house to the powerhouse to see the generators and then back to the west vista house. In 1950, Reclamation transferred the Crown Point site, which has marvelous views of the dam and of Lake Roosevelt, to the State Parks and Recreation Commission, with the understanding that any development of the site would be coordinated with the Park Service. [6]

Claude Greider, LARO's first superintendent, encouraged Reclamation guides to mention the Park Service and the national recreation area in their talks. He even provided several draft paragraphs outlining the recreational development the Park Service hoped to achieve along Lake Roosevelt. Frank Banks, Reclamation District Manager, felt that the lecturers should provide information in their own words, but he did approve one sentence stating that the reservoir was under the jurisdiction of the Park Service. Perhaps this rather uncooperative attitude of Reclamation was responsible for Greider's feeling that the Park Service interpretive program should be "completely independent" of Reclamation. [7]

I have the feeling that the National Park Service interpretive program should be centered upon the recreational area and that all lectures and interpretive devices around and in the vicinity of the Dam should be left to the Bureau of Reclamation. There appears no way to integrate the different procedures practiced. A distinct personality is to be expected from our presentation and it can only be achieved out in the field area assigned for administration to the Service. . . . The story of the Coulee Dam had best be left to the builders.

-- John E. Doerr, Park Service Chief Naturalist, 1949

To encourage visitors to stay overnight, Reclamation created a very popular thirty-minute display of colored lights playing on the water spilling over the face of the dam. The seasonal light show began in 1957, the same year Reclamation opened its new tour center. These developments led LARO Superintendent Hugh Peyton to anticipate increased visitation to the national recreation area's facilities at Spring Canyon and North Marina. Although the tour center focused on telling the story of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, Reclamation did invite LARO to provide a large map of the national recreation area (NRA) for the lobby and one or two photographs for a slide show. When LARO personnel requested Park Service help with this project, however, they were told to wait until the Western Museum Laboratory (where exhibit specialists were located) was in operation. The work was done in 1960, with detailed directions provided by LARO Superintendent Homer Robinson, who asked that visitor facilities be shown by symbols and activities by cartoon characters. Although visitors had no trouble finding the Reclamation tour center, they had more difficulty finding Park Service facilities along the lake because of the lack of signs on approach roads. [9]

In 1961, Reclamation replaced its guided tours of the powerhouse with a free self-guided tour of the powerhouse and later of the pumping plant, too, with taped talks at a number of locations. During the 1960s, the Reclamation tour center was staffed jointly by Reclamation and the Park Service. LARO Park Naturalist Paul McCrary wrote, "The interests of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Service at [Coulee Dam] go hand-in-glove. It is undesirable and impractical for the Service to establish separate visitor center facilities." During this period, up to four hundred people an hour entered the tour center. The Park Service evening programs there brought together North Marina and Spring Canyon campers and people staying in local motels, providing an opportunity for LARO personnel to emphasize the recreational opportunities of the area. But by 1967, Park Naturalist Arthur Hathaway was suggesting that these duties at the dam revert to Reclamation. [10]

The construction of the third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam required Reclamation to reconsider its visitor facilities. In 1967, Reclamation contracted with Spokane architect Kenneth Brooks to design ways to showcase Grand Coulee Dam. His proposal included an Arrival Center on the left bank below the left powerhouse, an exterior elevator from the top of the forebay dam to the third powerhouse, and an aerial cable car to an exhibit center high above the river that would interpret geology and human history. Most of these elaborate ideas never made it into reality. [11]

The third powerhouse construction required that the 1957 tour center be removed in 1968, and a temporary visitor center was constructed with advice from LARO Superintendent Howard Chapman. The bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt that had been dedicated in 1953 also had to be removed because of the construction. It was relocated in 1974 from the site of the forebay of the third powerhouse on the east end of the dam to its present site on the left bank just upstream of the dam. The Spokane World's Fair of 1974 led to very high visitation; over 468,000 people came to the dam that year. [12]

slide show program
Slide show being given inside Reclamation's Visitor Arrival Center, 1962. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO.FS).

Ever since the 1940s, LARO staff had been urging Reclamation to provide more information to dam visitors on the recreational facilities along Lake Roosevelt. During the planning for the existing Reclamation Visitor Arrival Center (VAC), which opened in 1981, the Park Service expected to have significant input in exhibit planning. LARO staff proposed producing a joint film that would describe both the dam tours and other recreational activities. LARO hoped to be able to provide "short, but pleasant and light" exhibits in the new facility, along with a publication sales outlet and evening programs. [13] LARO's suggestions were not always adopted, however. When LARO Superintendent William Dunmire reviewed the exhibit plan for the new VAC, he wrote, "I am astonished to find no focus on Coulee Dam National Recreation Area in this plan other than as a minor element of the CRT units [television or computer screens]. . . . I had discussed the desirability of having an orientation sequence to recreational opportunities on Lake Roosevelt a year or so ago with Bob Evans and understood that it would be incorporated in the plan." [14]

The spillway colored lighting program was discontinued in 1977 because the new powerhouse required more water for power generation (spilling water over the face of the dam thus became wasteful). The light show was replaced by lectures and movies sponsored by the Park Service and Reclamation. Because of public demand, in 1989 Congress authorized a laser light show to be played across the face of the dam, a program that requires much less water to be spilled. The show runs every night from May until September. The laser light show uses popular music and a human voice speaking as the Columbia River to provide a thumbnail history of the river and the people who have lived along it and used its waters. Although it does mention recreation as a benefit of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, the only reservoir it mentions by name is Banks Lake; Lake Roosevelt and the NRA are not specifically mentioned. [15]

Even though the planning documents written in the 1970s and 1980s called for the Park Service to partner with Reclamation, this did not happen until the early 1990s. LARO staff felt that the 1981 VAC did not lend itself to much more than dispensing park brochures and program schedules and providing recreational information at computer stations. Often even these methods of getting out the word about LARO failed, such as when the computer printers were down or the folders had all been handed out. The new 1990 Multi-Party Agreement, however, mentioned that interpretation at the Reclamation VAC should address the impact of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project on the tribes and also should inform visitors of available recreational resources. Chief of Interpretation Dan Brown approached Reclamation officials with a proposal based partly on the interpretation program at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where the Park Service, not Reclamation, led interpretive tours through the dam's powerhouse. According to Brown, Reclamation was reluctant to have LARO personnel share the same information desk because "our uniforms were more official looking and they felt that visitors would come to us rather than to them, and they were right." [16] Personnel of both agencies shared the same information desk in 1990 and 1991, but then the Park Service was relegated to a small desk that was not easily visible, so less than 10 percent of the nearly 500,000 annual visitors stopped at it. [17]

LARO had had an agreement with Reclamation that a blind vendor would sell LARO books at the VAC; these sales contributed significantly to the park's total sales. (Blind vendors, by law, are given priority rights to provide concession services in appropriate federal buildings). When LARO personnel began staffing the VAC, Reclamation relocated the vendor to a trailer in the parking lot because the vendor was not willing to share the inside space with the Park Service. The State Department of Services for the Blind contended that the Northwest Interpretive Association (LARO's cooperating association) was a vending facility in direct competition with the displaced visually impaired vendor and should be prohibited from selling books. Dan Brown and others were called to Seattle in 1995 to testify regarding the case. An arbitration board decided in favor of the blind vendor, and the Park Service had to move out of the VAC. If the Park Service continued to sell publications in the VAC, the agency would have to give a percentage of sales to the blind vendor. The Park Service decided not to continue its presence and sales items there. Brown summarized, "We essentially just closed up shop and went home. It was a four-year challenge." He felt that it was difficult to make a strong case for the Park Service without more support from within the agency, from Reclamation, and from the cooperating association. Today, the blind vendor in the VAC sells a few LARO items; he buys them from the Northwest Interpretive Association and sets his own prices. [18]

Current LARO Superintendent Vaughn Baker does not plan to have Park Service interpretive personnel work at the VAC. "Frankly, I wouldn't want to be there," he said. "The purpose of the VAC is to tell the story of the dam, and that's not why we're here. That's Reclamation's story; that's not our story." Currently the only Park Service "presence" in the Reclamation facility is a large map of the national recreation area. Present interpretive staff remains interested in helping Reclamation "flesh out their story," but whether this will occur remains to be seen. [19]

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2003