Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Chapter 14:

The Park Service made little headway on wilderness designation for North Cascades until the early 1980s. In part, the number of park wilderness proposals before Congress swamped the process, while at the park level the status of mining claims and the issue of High Ross Dam stymied wilderness planning. In 1984, however, the situation began to change. Washington's congressional delegation successfully passed legislation establishing wilderness on the state's national forests, prompting interest in something similar for Washington's national parks. More importantly, once wilderness advocates learned that the High Ross controversy had been resolved that year, they renewed their interest in designating wilderness for North Cascades as well as Olympic and Mount Rainier. Groups like the North Cascades Conservation Council had been reluctant to pursue wilderness legislation for North Cascades until High Ross was settled, primarily because the project would have eliminated any chance to protect the Big Beaver Valley as wilderness.

Park managers recognized the shift in public attitudes and updated the park complex's wilderness plan to reflect recent changes in 1984. Since the 1970s, agency officials had continued to revise the complex's wilderness recommendations, adding lands formerly slated for developments and other uses but deemed inappropriate for current wilderness management practices. Over the years, for example, managers had eliminated plans for numerous backcountry hostels, an access road to Roland Point, a corridor for a tramway up Arctic Creek, and the management buffer along the wilderness boundary. Managers also added to the proposed wilderness by closing spur roads and acquiring mining claims. At the same time, they classified other lands in the Big Beaver Valley and Thunder Creek drainage, as well as patented mining claims, as potential wilderness additions. "Potential wilderness" referred to lands not owned by the federal government but which it planned to acquire, or lands owned by the government on which there was a nonwilderness use that the Park Service anticipated eliminating. Both the Big Beaver and Thunder Creek areas were ineligible for wilderness because they were still largely within the project area for Seattle City Light and needed to remain free for possible power development in the future. If the project's boundaries were revised, these potential additions would be administratively converted to wilderness. By 1988, the wilderness revisions included the corridor for the tramway up Ruby Mountain among other things, bringing the total acreage to approximately 634,600 acres of designated wilderness and some 5,200 acres of potential wilderness -- nearly 120,000 acres more than the original proposal. [1]

This latest proposal became part of the Washington Park Wilderness Bill introduced on March 15, 1988, by Washington Senator Daniel Evans. The legislation (supported by Senator Brock Adams) proposed designating more than 1.7 million acres wilderness within Olympic, Mount Rainier, and the North Cascades complex. Congressman Rod Chandler (along with Congressmen Al Swift and John Miller) introduced an identical companion bill in the House of Representatives. The bill was politically popular. Besides fulfilling the mandate of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the legislation represented the "first attempt to designate wilderness in national parks on a statewide basis," noted Evans. In doing so, "we can...ensure the permanent protection of one of the Nation's most treasured assets -- its national parks." The bill derived its importance from the long-term affects on the parks. "All of Washington's parks were established and are managed as wilderness parks," the senator observed. "We want the national parks in Washington to remain wilderness parks," and this bill "would prevent development from encroaching further into the wilderness areas of the parks," thereby ensuring that these parks would be managed for their "original purposes." [2]

The Washington Park Wilderness Act passed virtually unopposed and was signed into law on November 16, 1988. In general, the wilderness legislation for North Cascades was similar to earlier agency proposals with some notable exceptions. First, the wilderness would be named as a tribute to the agency's first director, Stephen Mather, for his contributions to the National Park Service. Superintendent John Reynolds came up with the idea after a conversation with former director Horace Albright. For all of Mather's work, he had not been formally recognized in the designation of any area in the park system, and the remote and isolated wilderness of the North Cascades, Reynolds believed, lent itself well to honoring Mather's legacy. [3] Second, park managers had drawn the boundaries to eliminate a host of potential threats to the park from small hydroelectric projects. The new boundaries embraced the headwaters of several proposed projects, terminating them while not infringing on the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC) over such projects in the park complex as prescribed in the North Cascades Act. [4]

Third, the legislation contained several amendments to clarify the park's authority under its enabling legislation. One revision limited FERC's authority over hydroelectric projects to existing and proposed elements of those projects within the complex's recreation areas. Two other revisions specified the use of natural and renewable natural resources within the recreation areas. One provision eliminated mining and mineral leasing in the recreation areas, except for the leasing of rock, sand, and gravel to Stehekin residents in Lake Chelan NRA as long as there was no adverse effects on the recreation area's administration. The other provision authorized the use or disposal of renewable natural resources in the recreation areas, primarily in the form of firewood in Stehekin and the removal of trees within power line rights-of-way in Ross Lake NRA. The legislation stated that such use was only authorized as long as it was compatible with the purposes of the recreation areas. Resource use was also subject to statutory authorities pertaining to the administration of the park system and other statutory authorities governing the conservation and management of natural resources under federal control. In short, agency officials, who maintained that an array of laws and policies applied to the management of the recreation areas, now had unequivocal proof.

These revisions to the North Cascades Act were considered among the most significant by park management. While they did not necessarily erase all of the park complex's problematic issues, they did clarify some long-disputed interpretations of, and vague provisions in, the park act. The legislation also cleaned up some outdated plans for tramways and other developments by drawing the wilderness boundaries to include the sites for these facilities. In this regard, the legislation forced the Park Service to limit future expansion and to abide by a wilderness mandate. The weight of the amendments was felt outside of the park complex, too. The provision covering minerals, for example, averted the need for a separate statute governing the use of mineral resources in the recreation areas; otherwise, a precedent could have been set affecting other recreation areas in the park system with similar language about mineral use in their legislation. [5]

Although the wilderness legislation accomplished a great deal from the perspective of the complex's administration, environmental groups thought that the wilderness legislation did not go far enough, and in some instances reinforced rather than revised management problems. The North Cascades Conservation Council, the main voice of opposition, objected to a number of provisions, many of which reflected their own vision of the true purpose of the North Cascades complex. The council did not like the use of Stephen Mather's name for the wilderness because people might mistakenly associate it with the Mather Memorial Parkway in Mount Rainier National Park. The council strongly believed that the wilderness boundaries should include Big Beaver Valley and Thunder Creek, as well as other areas slated for future expansion by City Light. The designation of Big Beaver and Thunder Creek as potential wilderness did not accord these areas the recognition and protection they deserved, especially in light of the international treaty resolving High Ross. The Park Service drew the wilderness boundaries at an elevation of 1,725 feet around the lake to allow for the raising of Ross Lake with High Ross, as identified in the treaty. The agency defended its decision by noting that once the treaty expired in 2066 these areas would be administratively added to wilderness. To the council, the agency's decision smacked of political expediency instead of displaying the backbone to protect properly the last vestiges of primitive America. The council viewed allowances for other proposed projects, such as the Copper Creek Dam, in a similar light. [6]

The council voiced other objections to the Park Service's wilderness boundaries. It believed that rather than having the wilderness boundaries two hundred feet from Highway 20 and other park roads, as established by the Park Service, the boundaries should be one hundred feet from the center line, leaving a buffer of fifty feet on either side. Council members also wanted to have the wilderness boundaries cross Park Creek, thereby closing the Stehekin Road at this point, leaving only trail access above there to Cottonwood. The conservation council reasoned that the upper Stehekin Valley could return to its wilderness state and at the same time save the government money because it would no longer have to rebuild this section of road which suffered numerous washouts. Moreover, the recommendation reflected N3C's continuing attempts to include the Cascade River Valley and the scenic section of Highway 20 in Granite Creek within the park. [7]

On other matters, the council found the Park Service's provisions for the international boundary objectionable, noting that the cleared swath along the border was a visual blight and incompatible with a wilderness experience. The wilderness legislation allowed clearing to continue when council members believed that Congress should have used this opportunity to revise clear-cutting practices in wilderness areas and national parks along the boundary. Finally, the agency's revisions to the North Cascades Act covering the use of natural resources in the recreation areas were anathema to the meaning of the park complex; rather than protecting natural resources, the agency was promoting their use. The revisions were administrative "house cleaning" and the agency's way of "shirking responsibility to protect land under its stewardship," the council concluded. [8]

For the most part, these complaints went unaddressed in the final legislation, primarily because the provisions were based on agency policy, because agency managers had the support of the state's congressional delegation, and because many of the proposals would require extensive public review. There were some exceptions. The final legislation omitted plans for a backcountry information center along the highway in Marblemount. Superintendent Reynolds lobbied for the relocation of the backcountry information center from the Marblemount Ranger Station, a mile off the highway, because it was "inconvenient to visitors." The main reason behind Reynolds' plan was the recent approval for the construction of the Newhalem Visitor Center. The long-awaited visitor center would be too far east of the junction of Highway 20 and the road to Cascade Pass to efficiently register backcountry users. [9] In the end, the backcountry information center remained at the ranger station.

Environmental groups were not the only ones to voice their concerns about the wilderness legislation. Some Stehekin residents interpreted the wilderness bill as still another means to shrink the valley community, restrict its way of life further, and possibly eliminate it altogether. The Stehekin Community Council complained that the wilderness boundaries were too close to the valley floor, even though the entire valley floor had been excluded from wilderness. Specifically, the community council worried that having designated wilderness so close to Stehekin would create unnecessary conflicts between the two areas -- one managed for pristine nature, the other as an active community in a recreation area. Stehekin, the council predicted, would be treated as an external "impact" on the wilderness area and be subjected to even "tighter governmental controls" by the Park Service in order to protect wilderness values. The community council lobbied for Lake Chelan NRA to be removed from the wilderness legislation, stating that the recreation area was not suitable for wilderness. The Park Service, however, disagreed. Superintendent Reynolds noted that Stehekin residents had nothing to be worried about; wilderness designation would not change existing backcountry uses or community use of natural resources. The boundaries recognized the range of the existing community and possible expansion. Moreover, wilderness designation would help protect the Stehekin way of life in the long term, providing it one more layer of administrative protection from outside influences. [10]

In addition, Stehekin would not serve as a wilderness transition zone and be subject to more regulations. Congress had addressed this issue in other wilderness legislation; the proximity of wilderness boundaries to a highway or community were not intended to get rid of either one. Reynolds cited Yosemite Valley as "an ideal parallel to the Stehekin Valley." The two areas had similar topography and similar wilderness boundaries drawn several hundred feet above the valley floors, which in essence teamed with visitors, park facilities, and concessions. When Yosemite's wilderness was established in 1984, there was "no intent by the NPS or Congress to use the location of the wilderness boundary as a way to eliminate the Yosemite Valley community," noted Reynolds, just as there was no intent to eliminate the Stehekin Valley community with the wilderness proposal for North Cascades. [11]


The Stephen Mather Wilderness was created nearly twenty years to the day after the establishment of North Cascades. Superintendent John Earnst noted that the legislation gave official recognition to the "wilderness values of the North Cascades," and "strengthens our commitment to long-term preservation of the wilderness character and resources" of the newly designated wilderness. [12] Interestingly, managers viewed the designation as a major change that would largely go unnoticed by most park visitors. Backcountry managers, in short, anticipated little revision in how they had been managing the North Cascades backcountry. Now the program, which was built around regulated use and rehabilitation of damaged terrain, would have the strength of law rather than administrative policy behind it. More importantly, wilderness was given greater credibility as the main management theme of the park complex. Wilderness covered more than 90 percent of the park and adjacent recreation areas. During his reorganization of the park complex's administration in the late 1980s, Superintendent Reynolds had established the wilderness district to acknowledge the administrative importance of wilderness. Reynolds arrived at this decision in part after hiking the trails in the park complex and realizing that backcountry standards differed between the Skagit and Stehekin districts. The standards in the Skagit District were higher, and he wanted to raise the Stehekin District's to the level established by William Lester and Craig Holmquist, then backcountry ranger and trails foreman for the Skagit District, respectively. Reynolds wanted their vision of wilderness management and trail maintenance to become the norm for the entire park complex. Around this same time, the park formed a wilderness committee composed of representatives from all divisions who coordinated wilderness-related activities, reviewed flight requests and minimum tool concerns, and advised the superintendent about wilderness issues. In this way, wilderness management would continue to intersect with nearly all facets of the park complex's management. [13]

In the late 1980s, Backcountry Area Ranger William (Bill) Lester and Chief of Resource Management Jonathan Jarvis summarized the wilderness management program as "a comprehensive effort to respond to past and present impacts. In order "to apply and refine existing techniques," park managers had developed "a multifaceted wilderness management program" consisting of four major components. The first was education. Park staffers educated visitors about climbing safety and minimum impact techniques primarily through the information center at Marblemount and frequent backcountry and climbing patrols, all of which markedly reduced accidents while climbing activity increased, and at the same time reduced impacts to the fragile subalpine country while increasing the park's credibility with the public. The second component was the application of the "Limits of Acceptable Change" (LAC). North Cascades was the first park in the system to adopt this system of impact monitoring in 1989. It incorporated existing practices as well as new ones as a management tool; it consisted of site monitoring, backcountry permits, party size limitations, and campsite designation. The third aspect of the wilderness program was human waste management through the use of a waste reduction and composting system. The final part of the program was one of the most essential -- the revegetation of damaged sites. [14]

The wilderness management program had its origins in Superintendent Roger Contor's efforts to repair denuded subalpine passes and instill respect for the need to avoid other forms of human-caused damage, such as social trails, uncontrolled camping, and campfire use. By the late 1980s and 1990s, the result was a regulated wilderness experience. The mandatory permit system helped disperse visitors, shifted camping away from sensitive and damaged areas, and promoted minimum impact camping techniques. In short, wilderness users were required to use established camps if they were traveling in the backcountry by trail, thereby concentrating use in selected areas and leaving most of the wild country undisturbed. More than three hundred miles of trails provided access to the park complex's wilderness and some two hundred designated camps, hardened to absorb use, aided in this process. Fires were only permitted where park managers had installed fire grates, generally below 3,500 feet, and no fires were allowed in cross-country areas since fire damage in these areas lasted so long. Backcountry visitors, from hiker to mountain climber, could expect contact with a ranger, instructions on appropriate wilderness camping techniques and the purpose of these techniques; they could expect to use pit or composting toilets, and to keep to a schedule. These and other prescriptive measures were part of the North Cascades wilderness experience. [15]

Although controlling wilderness use might seem antithetical to a true wilderness experience, wilderness managers recognized that in the backcountry, as in any national park area, protecting the resource while ensuring present and future generations the opportunity for a wilderness experience was the central goal. From an administrative perspective, it was essential that the backcountry operation remain flexible enough to address shifting priorities. The park's organization placed all functions having a direct effect on backcountry management under the supervision of the backcountry area ranger, or today's wilderness district ranger. Among these operations were backcountry information, patrols, revegetation and monitoring. Cooperation with other divisions was important as well, particularly with trails maintenance. Maintaining trails was critical to resource protection and visitor experiences in the backcountry, and to this end both divisions worked successfully to meet their common goals.

Lester and Jarvis viewed the wilderness management program at North Cascades as successful. "With continued hard work and innovation, the outlook for the wilderness backcountry of the North Cascades is bright," they wrote. Visitation had increased by 100 percent since in the twenty years since the park's establishment, yet the " less impacted today and will see continued improvement in the future. Future generations will find in North Cascades an unimpaired wilderness legacy." [16]

Understanding the wilderness management program would be incomplete without understanding the role played by Bill Lester. It happens in the course of a national park's administration that one individual, often with the assistance of others, comes to be associated with a particular program. To be sure, backcountry protection began and was in place before Lester arrived at the park in 1978, but under his direction for fourteen years, wilderness management developed into its current form. Lester's influence touched the entire program, but his attention to several aspects of wilderness management were especially important.

Shortly after he arrived, Lester changed the tours of backcountry rangers. Prior to his arrival, seasonal and permanent backcountry staff were assigned to different areas of the park complex, the idea being that they would gain a broader knowledge of the backcountry. Lester saw this practice as inefficient and in 1979 began assigning rangers to territories. Each ranger would be responsible for areas centered around locations such as Cascade Pass, Whatcom Pass, Copper Ridge, or Junction Camp, where they would have a semi-permanent campsite. The change meant that rangers would have lighter loads during trips to the outside, and lighter loads for trips back in, freeing up space in packs for more food. Finally, rangers would become more intimately acquainted with one area of the wilderness, better serving the public and the resource. [17] Education was an important element in wilderness protection. Information on low-impact camping, the permit system, and ranger patrols proved effective in curbing damage to backcountry areas inflicted by hikers and stock users, but reaching climbers with the message was lagging, Lester believed. Climbers frequented the North Cascades in rapidly growing numbers beginning in the 1970s, and they tended to use fragile alpine areas for base camps, creating problems with human waste and damaging sensitive vegetation. Safety was another issue. To address the problem, Lester formed a climbing team who would be available to consult with climbers in the information office but who would also make contacts with climbers in popular areas. Moreover, all seasonal backcountry staff were trained in climbing techniques during orientation. Climbing rangers had both the skill and knowledge to gain the respect of alpinists who visited the North Cascades and to relate the park's interest in their safety and respect of fragile terrain. [18]

Lester engaged in other ways to inform the public. When funding was available only for the design but not the construction of displays on minimum impact camping, vegetation restoration, and safety for the backcountry information office, he designed and built them himself for a fraction of the estimated cost. He also taught Boy Scout leaders about modern wilderness ethics, summed up in the phrase "touch the wilderness gently," now standard in the park's education program. And in an effort to reach a larger audience, Lester helped start the North Cascades Institute in 1986. The non-profit institute, supported by the Park Service, had as its central theme environmental education with a wilderness related theme for all ages. The institute was particularly important to Superintendent Reynolds, who believed that the "most effective way to pass on an understanding of the value of parks was through education programs, especially those geared toward schools where not only kids could learn, but so could teachers." Forming the institute was one of Reynolds' first proposals after he arrived at the park complex. At it turned out, Saul Wiesberg and Tom Fleishner (two co-founders of the institute) had proposed something similar a few years earlier to Superintendent Keith Miller, who turned them down. Out of this relationship, and the assistance of park staffers like Margie Allen, the institute became a reality. [19]

Human waste presented one of the most urgent problems facing wilderness managers, especially in many subalpine areas of the park. As backcountry use increased in the 1970s and 1980s, the concentration of human waste posed health, aesthetic, and natural resource problems. Old pit toilets at subalpine camps could not handle the volume of waste; decomposition was slow and new pits were needed. But in the shallow and rocky soil of most subalpine areas, surface water could easily be contaminated with human waste, and there was not enough space to dig new holes. One solution, used before 1981, was to install, and later fly out, fiberglass vault toilets. This method increased helicopter use in the wilderness and came at a high price. To reduce the use of helicopters and to save money, Lester and others developed a composting toilet using peat moss in the early 1980s. The system worked well but it was not perfect, because it reduced rather than decomposed the waste. It also required a strong staff commitment to maintain them. By the late 1990s, backcountry staff and others were working to improve the design using fiberglass in the construction of the new composter toilets. Some of these new fiberglass toilets recently have been installed in the backcountry. [20]

Besides composting toilets, Bill Lester made perhaps his greatest contribution to the park's revegetation program. One of the strongest themes in the history of wilderness management has been healing damaged terrain in order to restore the environment to as near its natural condition as possible. By the late 1970s, the revegetation program was making progress, in particular at Cascade Pass and some popular camping areas in forested zones. Lester infused the program with new energy and direction; he expanded the program by finding enterprising, innovative, and efficient ways to keep the program growing on a limited budget. In many ways, Lester's involvement was personal as well as professional. His wife, Kathy, for example, volunteered to take over managing the plant propagation at Marblemount. And in 1980, without park funding, Lester designed and constructed a greenhouse, using volunteer labor and scrounged materials, to grow plants on the Marblemount compound. [21]

In a few years, through trial and error, the new facility germinated plants from seeds and produced four times the number of plants that had been transplanted at Cascade Pass in the past ten years. With the construction of the greenhouse, the park's revegetation program began to focus more on the off-site propagation of plants from seed rather than natural revegetation in closed areas using cuttings from plants. By 1987, some 55,000 plants had been grown at Marblemount and transplanted at Cascade Pass, and by the 1990s, it was estimated that 100,000 subalpine plants had been successfully transplanted, healing denuded areas like Cascade Pass, Monogram Lake, Whatcom Pass, Park Creek Pass, 10-mile Camp, and other damaged sites. Lester helped promote this transformation from denuded sites to living meadows by soliciting contracts to grow plants for other agencies and parks; he set up a donation fund and formed partnerships with a number of local environmental groups such as the Mountaineers and Washington Native Plant Society. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) and later the Young Adult Conservation Association (YACC) played special roles as partners in preservation, providing numerous resource assistants and tens of thousands of hours of labor to the revegetation program and wilderness program in general. The resource assistants were considered full members of the park staff and were key members of the park's revegetation crew; more than thirty went on to become Park Service employees. [22]

Lester's work did not go unnoticed. In 1985, Superintendent John Reynolds lauded Lester for his "creativity, persistence, [and] commitment to the resources of this park, and in 1987, the North Cascades staff nominated him for the Stephen T. Mather Award, given annually by the National Parks and Conservation Association. Bill Lester's efforts, however, would not have been so successful without the support of dedicated park employees and volunteers, who helped contribute to North Cascades' reputation as a leader in restoring damaged wild lands. Joe and Margaret Miller were key players in developing that reputation. Their work spanned more than twenty-five years and influenced the rehabilitation of lands not only in North Cascades but also in parks and forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. In the early 1990s, park managers constructed a new greenhouse in Marblemount, one larger and more modern than the facility built by Bill Lester. On Memorial Day in 1993, Superintendent William Paleck dedicated the greenhouse to the Millers and made them honorary rangers in recognition of their long and valuable service to the Park Service. [23]

By the 1990s, the wilderness program was a management model. In 1994, Director Roger Kennedy presented North Cascades with the Outstanding Wilderness Management Award at the sixth national wilderness conference. Nevertheless, program leaders continued to "apply and refine" proven management techniques. The permit system, a cornerstone of the program, was computerized in 1990 and based at the Wilderness Information Center at Marblemount, making the permit system more efficient as called for by a former backcountry ranger. Wilderness managers periodically changed the way they distributed permits. In 1976, they dropped the reservation system and issued permits only on a first-come, first-served basis. Revisiting the idea in 1990, managers experimented with a limited backcountry campsite reservation system, but ended the practice after the 1994 season because it demanded too much staff time, and only a small number of people with reservations ended up following through with permits. The program also continued to emphasize education as one of the most important elements in wilderness preservation through a wide variety of publications and displays. [24]

Wilderness managers revised other practices as well. They attempted to reduce the use of helicopters in the backcountry. In the late 1970s, some managers viewed the use of helicopters as an effective means of carrying out backcountry operations, especially as an alternative to using pack stock which, it was believed, damaged sensitive subalpine terrain and created greater maintenance problems for trails. In the 1990s, modern wilderness managers viewed helicopters as expensive and often intrusive and developed a system to evaluate each non-emergency flight request and to control the periods in which helicopters could fly. At this juncture, managers decided to increase and expand their use of pack stock in order to reduce helicopter use, albeit with some restrictions on where pack animals were allowed. [25]

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999