Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Chapter 3:

By the time North Cascades National Park had been created, national parks were a century old, yet the tensions between preservation and development, at the heart of many philosophical arguments on the purpose and management of parks, continued unabated. Traditionally, the Park Service had modified parks like Yosemite and Mount Rainier to accommodate tourists, providing roads, campgrounds, and other conveniences. These developments increased the popularity of national parks, especially in the first several decades of this century, but they did so at the expense of wilderness preservation. Moreover, the Park Service faced a different situation in its development plans for the North Cascades. The agency inherited a physical plant developed by the Forest Service. True, modifications were needed to meet park standards, yet at the same time, managers had a system of trails, roads, campgrounds, front and backcountry ranger stations, waterfront recreation facilities, to name a few things, at their disposal. However advantageous this situation was, park managers encountered controversy with their proposals. They still found themselves pressured by groups interested in different, and often opposing, uses. As was often the case, the agency tried to find a middle ground between the two, but like shooting at a moving target, the results were mixed.

As the debates over the establishment of North Cascades demonstrated, Park Service officials and a large sector of the public had concluded that the answer to overcrowded parks and imperiled natural resources was not the development of more roads and parking lots but limitations on, or alternative forms of, visitor access. By the early 1970s, for example, Yosemite closed off the eastern third of the valley and the Mariposa Grove to automobiles, offering instead access to both areas by public transportation, and was considering closing all of the valley to cars. Around the same time proposals for yet another tramway to Glacier Point surfaced, as a way to relieve pressure from crowds in the valley, setting off a firestorm of protest. Though the proposal was defeated, it suggested that there were no simple solutions to decades-old management traditions, only redirection. [1] Even in a park dedicated to wilderness like North Cascades, Park Service officials confronted similar problems as they set out to develop the complex for visitor use.

Park managers believed that concentrating visitor services in the recreation areas would solve the development problems experienced in other national parks. In one of his first discussions about the new parkland, Superintendent Contor related this management concept:

If the national economy permits, we hope to pursue an aggressive development program in the next five years. The result of this will be attractive public lodges, visitor centers, campgrounds, boating facilities and transportation facilities centered primarily in the two recreation areas. At the periphery of the park will be road and tramway access -- hopefully with associated skiing opportunities -- bringing all types of visitors to the threshold of the wilderness. The core of the two park units will remain in a wilderness state. It is not likely that we can do anything in the way of manmade developments which could 'improve' the character of that great wilderness. We only want to introduce it to the public, to bring them to the doorway in a comfortable and pleasant manner. [2]

The wilderness concept may have been the main focus of management, but traditional development concerns and park uses were on the minds of many park boosters, politicians, and Park Service officials. More important, centering development in the recreation areas -- or wilderness thresholds -- merely transferred rather than eliminated tensions between preservation and use. As one reporter noted, "the park's destiny cannot be realized until both the highway and mass-recreation facilities are completed." Otherwise, a wilderness park inaccessible to the American people "is only an exercise in futility." [3]

The park's 1970 master plan proposed the most traditional park experiences for the Skagit Valley, lying within Ross Lake NRA. Here the majority of developments would be oriented toward automobiles. Once Highway 20 opened, windshield tourists would drive through the narrow valley surrounded by rugged terrain and view the park's scenery from their cars. For this reason, the agency planned to improve upon existing Forest Service facilities and install new conveniences for tourists along the highway. As we have already seen, both the Forest Service and the Park Service planned visitor centers on the eastern and western entrances to the new parkland. Moreover, from the highway, visitors would find access to Ross, Diablo, and Gorge lakes, ascend to the high country in one or more tramways for a territorial view of the peaks, and take advantage of a series of overnight accommodations, such as campgrounds, hostels, and lodges. In addition, to the Skagit Valley, the plan proposed expanded facilities for boating and camping (and a possible ferry terminal) at Hozomeen at the north end of Ross Lake.

On the other hand, visitors to the Stehekin Valley in Lake Chelan NRA would have a less traditional park experience, one not as oriented toward the automobile, since no outside road reached Stehekin. The emphasis would focus more on the slower pace of valley life and the region's impressive scenery. In the Stehekin River country, all developments should, the plan stated, "center around its isolated, relaxed, 'away-from-it-all' character and its unique position as a wilderness threshold."

The master plan proposed developments for two areas outside the recreation areas as well. These, like the Skagit, would also focus on windshield tourists. One area was the Nooksack Cirque near Mount Shuksan in the far northwestern corner of the national park. Superintendent Contor was particularly fond of this proposal, for it would have brought motorists within easy reach of, but not directly to, one of the park's most significant resources: glaciers. Here the agency could interpret the park's glacial and geologic story in dramatic scale with the Nooksack Glacier pushing down the slopes of Mount Shuksan in the foreground. The other area was the popular Cascade Pass. It is one of the few places where visitors could drive close to the park's scenic high country and reach the pass after a relatively short hike or ride on horseback. Because of this easy access, it is one of the most popular entrances into the park and, for that reason, the sensitive alpine environment suffered serious impacts. Rather than expand developments here, the agency proposed its first limitations on the use of the park.

In June 1970, the Park Service held public hearings on its master plan, including its wilderness recommendations. In general, preservationists "praised" the National Park Service for producing "one of the best plans" they had seen. It recognized the "truly superb wilderness character" of the park complex, and displayed a progressive "vision and willingness" in its decision to designate sections of the recreation areas as wilderness. Overall, it demonstrated the agency's willingness to place biological resources above hurried development -- and to study the potential impacts its plans could have on the region's environment. [4]

Not surprisingly, preservationists, who made up the majority of those who attended the hearings, reacted strongly to any potential threats to wilderness protection. The most controversial items that emerged out of the hearings had their roots in the study team's proposals, especially those offered by Park Service Director George B. Hartzog, Jr., regarding access. Initial plans had called for building four aerial trams at Price Lake, Arctic Creek, Colonial Peak, and Ruby Mountain. Preservationists fought to have them removed from the park's final plan, and only two were retained in the final plan, one for Arctic Creek, the other for Ruby Mountain. This latter tramway received the greatest emphasis, since its terminal would be the most developed site in the complex, serving visitors along Highway 20 with facilities for eating, parking, and interpretation.

The question of whether tramways should be built in the park and recreation areas touched upon important issues confronting national parks in the late 1960s and 1970s -- overcrowding by automobiles -- for which North Cascades became an important testing ground for Park Service policy. During the congressional hearings on North Cascades, Hartzog stated that both the nation and national parks were at a crossroads in their relationship with the automobile. In the past, "we have taken the view that access to the great national parks should be by roads," but with a rising population and thus rising visitation, "we are simply strangling to death in roads," and "I don't believe that we can continue to build roads to take care of the people who want to see these parks by automobile." The historic concept of automobiles as one of the primary means of seeing a national park had become "obsolete," and there must be "some other access or we will destroy the very values that we are trying to save." [5]

In Hartzog's mind, substituting tramways for roads in the North Cascades would protect its wilderness values, much in the same way his predecessor, Conrad Wirth, justified the construction of roads during the Mission 66 program. The idea of installing tramways in national parks was not new; various proposals had arisen during the first decades of the Park Service's existence. This was the first time, however, that the agency considered them appropriate -- as "a substitute for automobiles and a highway." Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall supported Hartzog's proposal, for example, as a serious "attempt to solve some of the old [park access] problems in a new way and to show that we can provide transportation in parks by means other than the automobiles." Nevertheless, the tramway concept appalled park supporters who saw trams as a way of defacing the very natural wonders they were supposed to be bringing visitors to see. "We had one proposed on top of the Grand Teton," Senator Clifford Hansen stated. "Everybody in Wyoming...was up in arms about it." Were the Park Service to reverse its policy and build tramways in a park, he concluded, where would it stop? [6]

Hartzog and Udall assured members of Congress that the tramways would be unique to the North Cascades. They were a substitute for roads but not for the traditional kind of national park experience -- the ability to have a territorial view of the park landscape. Park Service policy, Udall stated, has not been to keep machines out of national parks," since most national parks have roads. Furthermore, those roads led motorists to the rim of the Grand Canyon or through the ethereal heights of Rocky Mountain. Nothing like this was available to visitors to North Cascades without a tramway. Unlike the other national parks, Udall noted, "you really have to get up high." Building a road to a peak would have been exceedingly difficult and expensive from an engineering standpoint and, more importantly, environmentally costly. Even the contemplated road down Ross Lake, Hartzog declared, would have desecrated the range's alpine scenery, for it would have blasted away so much of the narrow canyon that it would have looked like any interstate highway. [7]

The debate over automobiles and trams introduced a new direction in how Americans visited and experienced national parks, and it called into question the "basic park philosophy" of Stephen Mather, the Park Service's first director. Mather, who had promoted road building and automobile use in the national parks, helped shape a vision of parks as large, wilderness settings in which people were welcome and certain modern conveniences, such as roads and cars, were allowed as long as the majority of the park landscape was preserved in its natural state. At a time when traffic jams and air pollution made roads and cars increasingly out of fashion in American life, Secretary Udall reflected on the Mather era as a time when the agency was "a bit too addicted to the idea of roads." In a period of rising ecological awareness, the Park Service was already considering ways to limit automobile access to national parks, such as Yosemite, as a way to protect biotic resources. North Cascades, Udall concluded, offered a park where "we can plan from the beginning." Were Yosemite coming into the park system today, we might not "plan to put a road right in the heart of the valley. We might very well decide that we would have people park at the edge of the park and have electric trains run into the heart of the valley and keep the automobile with all its noises and odors out of the center of the national park." [8]

As further justification for building tramways, Director Hartzog suggested that his agency would use design principles similar to those employed by Park Service landscape architects to build park roads in harmony with the natural landscape during the 1920s and 1930s. That is, he envisioned tramways as roads by another name. Typically, ski lifts or European tramways, such as those found in Switzerland or Germany, were built in wide-open spaces with high tension cables cutting a swath through a forest or across the horizon like power lines. Instead, Park Service planners had carefully chosen the routes of the trams for the North Cascades to screen them from the park's wilderness high country or popular hiking trails up the Big and Little Beaver creeks adjacent to Ross Lake. The Arctic Creek tram, for example, would fit inside the valley's "compressed and compact" terrain, and as Udall elaborated, the agency planned to blend and hide it in "the natural setting to the highest degree possible." Like park roads, tramways would provide visitors the "magnificent views" of the North Cascades and conform to topographical features as much as possible. Seemingly, they, too, would not intrude on the park landscape. [9]

The debate over tramways struck at the heart of wilderness protection for the nation's parks as well as North Cascades. The question on the minds of many was: What kind of wilderness experience should parks provide? Should wilderness be accessible or remote? Legal scholar Joseph L. Sax argues that national parks should promote "reflective recreation" in a setting of unmodified wilderness, and thus preserve as much wilderness as possible. "To make wilderness areas more accessible by installing roads there, he asserts, "would put the visitor in the wilderness without exposing him to it, and would also intrude upon others' opportunities to experience challenging wild areas." Tramways should not provide a convenient solution for most visitors who wanted a wilderness experience but neither had the time nor the ability to hike into a park's backcountry. Transporting them to the top of a mountain might give them a truly "wilderness threshold experience," but "Peering into the wilderness from a tramway station, however, is not a wilderness experience; the sense of wilderness is not achieved by standing at its threshold, but by engaging it from within." Visitors should have the choice whether to experience true wilderness, which tramways or similar devices only "falsified or domesticated." [10]

There were no simple answers to the problem of access and wilderness protection. Preservationists, led by the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C), objected to the tramways in North Cascades for reasons advanced by Sax. They were willing, however, to accept the Ruby Mountain tram -- only after extensive environmental analysis -- because it lay entirely inside Ross Lake NRA, and would not invade or infringe upon the park's wilderness setting. Ironically, N3C, with the endorsement of the Sierra Club, Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, and National Parks Association, had earlier suggested constructing a spur road from Highway 20 to the top of Little Jack Mountain as an alternate "high-vista-point." Finally, conservationists were not always united in their views on tramways and access. Ira L. Spring, noted outdoor photographer, proposed Colonial Peak to the Park Service as a "very exciting possibility" for a tramway," one "as spectacular as any ride in the Alps." [11] And renowned mountaineer James Whittaker heartily approved of tramways in North Cascades as one of the best ways to view the range's scenic magnificence.

Though retained in the park's master plan, the Ruby Mountain tram was, like many controversial topics, debated for years. Both Superintendent Contor and his successor, Lowell White, supported the project; they believed the views that the tramway would offer were superlative. The congressional delegation of Senator Jackson and Representative Meeds also pressed for the project. Meeds was especially active in seeking to develop the park for mass recreation. Even though North Cascades was a wilderness park, Meeds wanted its management to be "pro people." [12]

The Ruby Mountain tram would be a significant step in this direction, particularly when Highway 20 opened in 1972 bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors to the upper Skagit Valley. Meeds feared, of course, that they would have no place to stop and nothing to see, and thus the new park would be a political failure. But in the early 1970s, the cost of building the tram and related facilities -- from planning to finished product -- hovered near $8 million, a significant sum that delayed the project. In addition, upper level officials within the Park Service were uncomfortable with the project and did not support it. Although indebted to Meeds as a political ally, the agency apparently did not want to fight a political battle with environmentalists over the tramway's design and construction. In addition, Park Service managers were ill at ease with the environmental damage that the tramway's installation would cause. They also knew that once built the tramway would create more development pressures, since skiers would pressure the agency to develop a ski area on Ruby Mountain. In the meantime, other construction programs both in the park and throughout the service were given higher priority, primarily to satisfy basic visitor needs and special initiatives. By the late 1970s, estimates for the tramway and related facilities had inflated to more than $13 million, forecasting still more delays. Finally, when Meeds left office late in the decade, the tramway project lost its biggest supporter and suffered a crippling blow. [13]

Another controversial development project was proposed for Roland Point on the eastern shore of Ross Lake, several miles north of Ross Dam. Like the Ruby Mountain tram, Congressman Meeds pressured the Park Service to complete this large-scale waterfront development, which included an overnight lodge, marina, and campground, to serve the multitude of automobile tourists traveling through the park complex along Highway 20. More than the Ruby Mountain tram, park planners believed, Roland Point would be the major development complex connected to the highway for windshield tourists.

Meeds saw Roland Point as critical to the park's success. It would open the southern end of Ross Lake to cars and boats; otherwise visitors could only reach the lake from the north over a long, unsurfaced road from Hope, British Columbia, to Hozomeen. With road access from Highway 20, the Roland Point development would help fulfill Meed's vision of the park complex as "people friendly." It would make Ross Lake NRA a model of visitor dispersion; here people would leave their cars behind and head off onto the lake to boat, fish, hike, camp, or hunt. Roland Point would be a key point in the concept of the recreation area as a wilderness threshold. Visitors could explore the lake and surrounding environment with a modicum of solitude, freedom, and comfort, using shoreline campgrounds, backcountry hostels, and possibly the Arctic Creek tramway. A passenger ferry would also operate on the lake, carrying visitors from north to south, for example, in place of a road along the lake's eastern shore.

Preservationists objected to the Roland Point development because it emphasized automobiles and power boats. A high concentration of cars and motor boats, they contended, would ruin the serenity of the fjord-like lake (no matter that it was man made) damage the fisheries, and pollute the aquatic environment with gas, oil, and sewage. Groups like N3C supported using Roland Point for camping but wanted it accessible by water and trail only. [14]

The park's master plan retained the Roland Point access road, despite these protests, primarily to appease Meeds. However, just as in the case of the Ruby Mountain tram, the Park Service seemed reluctant to press forward with the project. The critical element in the Roland Point development, as with so many park developments, came down to the construction of a road: the five-mile access road from Highway 20. The spur road would have created a long, ugly scar across the southern and western slopes of Jack Mountain, a scar visible from both the lake and the highway. Environmental assessments determined that the road's construction would have a significant impact on the natural landscape as well, causing serious erosion in the steep terrain. Finally, construction costs were substantial, ranging from $6.5 million to $10 million. [15]

Initially, Meeds lobbied the Park Service to build the road and request the funding. He charged that the agency was dragging its feet and that it would be ill-prepared for the onslaught of tourists after Highway 20 was completed in the fall of 1972. As Meeds wrote to Director Hartzog in March 1972, "We've known all along that when the highway opens this September, it will be only a short time before the North Cascades becomes very heavily visited. And where are the people going to go?" [16] Without the development at Roland Point, the congressman anticipated that sightseers would be frustrated and resentful. More important, he would bear the brunt of their dissatisfaction.

Eventually, park managers convinced him that the road to and development of Roland Point was not feasible at the time. Similar to other plans, the Roland Point facility had been proposed prior to detailed studies and in advance of environmental assessments and environmental impact statements required by the recently enacted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Another factor working against the development of Roland Point was Seattle City Light's proposal to raise the height of Ross Dam and subsequently the level of Ross Lake by some 125 feet. Were this to happen, it would have inundated most of Roland Point, and because the dam project turned into an international environmental issue with Canada, dragging on from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, the Park Service shelved its plans for Roland Point indefinitely. [17]

Nevertheless, the central issue of visitor services still needed to be addressed. The crux of the problem was drive-in campgrounds along the highway corridor in the upper Skagit Valley. At the time the North Cascades Highway opened, there were less than eighty campsites available in the recreation area. Visitation climbed from 250,000 people before the highway opened to 750,000 afterwards. "The facilities to accommodate more than a handful of the people who want to visit this magnificent park just don't exist," Meeds observed. "Unless you can afford a boat or you are hardy enough to carry a pack, there is almost no camping space available for you in the North Cascades National Park." [18]

Early on park planners estimated that there would be approximately 800 campsites in the upper Skagit Valley, half of them at Roland Point. (After further study, planners trimmed this figure to 140 sites.) The others were to be found at Colonial Creek and at a campground planned for Newhalem. The loss of Roland Point forced the Park Service to make up the difference by enlarging the proposed Newhalem campground from 250 to 300 sites, adding 200 sites on the north side of the highway at Goodell Creek, and increasing the number of sites at Colonial Creek to 150. There was also the possibility of building 100 sites on Diablo Lake, east of the Diablo Lake Resort. [19]

By the mid-1970s, with Meeds leading the charge, the park had made significant advances in campground expansion. Colonial Creek, for example, had been enlarged to more than 160 campsites and included boat launching facilities and other visitor services. Hozomeen campground, though outside the Skagit corridor, was doubled in size (to 72 sites). But this still only brought the drive-in capacity to just over 230 sites. [20]

A major source of the problem had been the new park's modest appropriations for construction programs. This situation had distressed, naturally, both Meeds and Jackson and thus the Park Service. In addition, some of the problem stemmed from the fact that many of the park's projects were still in the planning stages, and that some of the park's more controversial proposals also came with high price tags. Nevertheless, Meeds put some of the blame on the Park Service. In 1975, while requesting $2.5 million for the Newhalem campground before the House Interior Subcommittee, he noted that North Cascades ranked seventh out of thirty-eight major parks with serious development backlogs. "Parks are for people," he stated, "and I am disturbed at the Park Service's reluctance to recognize this." By the late 1970s, park managers seem to have come around to Meeds' way of thinking and identified the development of the Newhalem campground as the park's "highest priority," expanding its capacity to 450 sites. [21]

Improving campground facilities at Colonial Creek and Newhalem marked an important achievement in visitor services and development during the park complex's first decade. As Superintendent Lowell White remembered, they released political pressure from developing Roland Point. There were, of course, other improvements being carried out to accommodate increased numbers of visitors. At the Stehekin Landing, for example, park managers barged out old, abandoned cars, constructed a new sewage and water system, provided for (or assisted in) garbage removal, and carried out renovations to the docks. Other improvements, such as a ranger station at Hozomeen, were accomplished, and water quality projects for this site, as well as Marblemount and Colonial Creek, were in the planning stages. As for Ross Lake, the High Ross controversy limited, or put on hold, many improvements except for basic maintenance of shoreline campgrounds, trails, docks, and other recreational developments inherited from the Forest Service. [22]



Issues revolving around tramways and campgrounds illustrated one of the challenges of managing North Cascades as a wilderness park -- when it came to access and services, traditional national park developments prevailed. Rather than walk, visitors still expected some mechanical means of conveyance. Hence roads still played a central role in experiencing the park.

Highway 20. Highway 20 lies entirely within Ross Lake NRA, but nevertheless for most park visitors, this is their park -- and wilderness -- experience. They follow the Skagit River past City Light's dams, with their chain of emerald-green lakes; the company towns of Newhalem and Diablo, with their well-kept homes, trim lawns, playgrounds, and picnic tables. Nature along this corridor is more engineered than truly "wild." Most visitors, however, never differentiate between the recreation area and national park, never fully realizing where one ends and the other begins. Off in the distance and ethereal heights, sharped-edge peaks, snowfields, and glaciers enter the viewshed of drivers, making this a truly windshield wilderness.

The history of the highway's construction is a colorful and dramatic story, nearly a century in the making, but the essential theme is how the Park Service approached its management. As we have seen already, the park's master plan focused on developing the majority of the park's visitor services along the highway corridor. Yet the agency did not own the road. As part of the park complex's creation, law makers had allowed the state to retain control of the road's construction and maintenance. The state's main concern had been any possible limitations the Park Service might impose on the highway, especially since at the time the park was being created the road was not yet finished. Specifically, the state was concerned that the Park Service might limit, or impose fees for, commercial traffic on the highway itself. At the time, the highway's main purpose had been to tie the eastern and western portions of the state into a closer economic relationship as well as open up more forest lands to timber harvesting. Once the highway opened, however, tourism soon became the road's greatest boon. Symbolizing this was the state's decision to change the name from the North-Cross State Highway to the North Cascades Highway.

Like so much of the park complex's management history, any involvement in managing the highway involved other agencies or local governments in some form of cooperative management. In 1968, the Park Service issued a special use permit to Washington State for the highway crossing federal land (basically transferring the one originally issued by the Forest Service.) The Park Service also entered into a memorandum of understanding with the highway department that would outline the park's relationship with that state agency, namely in such matters as establishing the right-of-way boundaries. [23]

But park managers also asserted their role in the highway's completion and future management through their involvement with the governor's North Cascades Reconnaissance Task Force. Superintendent Contor, for example, was able to have his agency's concerns recognized regarding the highway's alignment in order to protect and enhance the natural beauty of the drive. This included adding several viewpoints and pullouts at strategic locations along the highway -- Gorge Dam, Gorge Falls, and Diablo Lake overlooks among them. In addition, Contor voiced his agency's concern with maintaining the aesthetics of the drive leading into the park complex. Mainly, Contor recalled, "we wanted to avoid creating another West Yellowstone or Estes Park" in gateway towns like Winthrop or Marblemount. And they did. The task force reached an agreement with Okanogan and Skagit county commissioners, who agreed to limit commercial development -- at least along the highway corridor near the entrances of the park complex -- by zoning for residential, agricultural, and recreational uses. [24] The fact that the road was closed in the long winter months of the North Cascades helped the agency prevent the new park area from being over used and kept its approaches from being commercially developed.

Cascade River Road. Highway 20 may have run through or between the northern and southern halves of North Cascades National Park, but there were few roads that actually ran into it. Short, dirt roads led up Damnation and Newhalem creeks from Highway 20; however, they offered few impressive views of the park's alpine grandeur. The only road that did was the Cascade River Road. This unsurfaced, twenty-five-mile road led from Marblemount along the Cascade River to Mineral Park. There it forked; one section turned to follow the North Fork of the Cascade River and extended some five miles inside the park's boundary to the foot of Cascade Pass. Here motorists, daring the narrow, tortuous old mining road, could view the range's scenic charms -- its awesome relief, chiseled peaks, and hanging glaciers. A hike or ride on horseback up a trail several miles would provide a park visitor an even closer encounter with this subalpine country. One could ascend to the pass and drop down into the Stehekin River Valley. In the distant and recent past, this route had been known as "the way through," one of the easier passes through the rugged northern Cascades. Used by native peoples, it was coveted by miners, boosters, and highway builders as the natural route for a transCascade road, for it would unlock the mineral and scenic riches of the range. For various reasons, those dreams were never realized, and the establishment of North Cascades as a national park ended further plans to join the Cascade River Road with the Stehekin Valley Road.

The road and river valley were also at the center of controversy over access to the new park. During the park campaign, preservationists had argued for including the Cascade River Valley in the park to protect its scenic and wilderness qualities from destructive forest management practices. Based on Forest Service plans to manage the area for its natural beauty, politicians left the valley out of the park. After the park was established, however, the main point of contention became the protection of the sensitive, subalpine environment of Cascade Pass and nearby lakes.

The pass, easily accessible to millions of urban denizens of the Puget Sound, helped popularize the otherwise hidden wonders of the North Cascades. At peak periods in the summer, it was estimated that some one thousand people a day drove to the foot of the pass. [25] The problem, of course, was that this sensitive terrain suffered serious damage from overuse, and the Park Service found itself in a familiar paradox of preservation and use. By controlling access, park managers could restore the natural environment -- revegetate, remove campgrounds, renovate trails, ban or limit horses, and impose day-use policies. Yet they also had to satisfy a traveling public who were accustomed to automobile access to national parks, an expectation rendered all the more serious given the uniqueness of Cascade Pass.

The park's first master plan declared that the Park Service would limit access to Cascade Pass, especially once Highway 20 opened, so its fragile environment could heal. In 1974, park managers followed through on this statement with the Cascade Pass plan to help repair the area's natural conditions. An important part of this plan was controlling access to the pass itself by closing the Cascade River Road just beyond the North Fork Bridge, building a parking lot here, and implementing a shuttle service to transport visitors for most of the remaining distance, approximately three-and-a-half miles. The shuttle buses would stop near the park boundary (at the Valuemine access road), leaving less than a mile (.7 miles) for visitors to walk to road's end and the trail head to the pass. The former parking lot at the end of the road would be converted into a small campground. [26]

Getting visitors out of their cars and into closer contact with the natural world was a trend in park management during the mid-1970s. As the plan's authors noted, until the shuttle system was operational, visitors would have "the privilege of walking this very scenic" section of road. But it was this aspect of the plan to which most people objected. At the public meetings held in Mount Vernon and Marblemount in the spring of 1974, for example, those in attendance protested restrictions on their "equal access rights," a perspective that resonated throughout the history of national parks and the belief that they belong to the American people, all of whom have a right to see them. [27]

Those who protested the road's closure represented a cross-section of the general public who, for one reason or another, were not endeared to public transportation. Climbers did not like the shuttle system because its schedule might inconvenience them. More important, others noted that the road offered the only vehicle access to one of the park's most scenic places. To close it would unfairly deny those who could not easily walk the last section of road -- the elderly, physically challenged, and families with young children. Though it was only a short distance to walk, the road here was rugged and steep, and the most spectacular view of the pass and surrounding alpine scenery was at the end of the road. [28]

Other factors worked against the road's closure as well and typified some of the problems managers confronted in the new park. The Park Service inherited the road from the Forest Service but not ownership of the entire road within the park's boundaries. Only the last several miles of the road were on government land and managed by the Park Service. The rest of the road, both in and outside the park's boundaries, belonged to Skagit County. Although Skagit County commissioners initially supported the road closure plan, they later opposed it after the plan's public meetings; it was simply politically unwise for them to back the proposal. Without the county's consent, the Park Service decided to scuttle the road closure and shuttle bus plan from its plan approved in the summer of 1974. In addition, while the county had the final word on the subject, park managers had to seek out the support of the Forest Service for constructing a parking lot on its lands and private property owners, namely the owners of the Valuemines, to assure them that they could still reach their operations. Gaining the cooperation of all groups, let alone one, exemplified the steps park managers had to take in most of their projects.

Stehekin Valley Road. The Stehekin Valley Road was the only road to penetrate for any distance into an otherwise roadless national park. Yet, as a result of the park campaign and subsequent legislation, it remained the "road to nowhere," confined to the U-shaped valley and cutoff from the outside world. To residents of Stehekin and preservationists like Grant McConnell, the road had a "quality of perfection." It had evolved almost organically. True, various government entities -- Chelan County, the Forest Service, and state -- had influenced its development, but it developed through human use over time and only then because people followed the natural corridor of travel: from the landing, along the river, through the woods, up the valley until it narrows, steepens, and ends some twenty-five miles later near today's Cottonwood Camp. Travel over it was always subject to weather and the changing conditions of the mountains. [29]

The reality of Park Service management, however, was much different than the idyllic landscape McConnell described, and the Stehekin Valley Road posed the greatest controversy for the new park where a road was concerned. On the one hand, preservationists believed that the road should be closed to motor vehicles at Bridge Creek, several miles into the southern unit of the national park. In this way, nature could soften the final eleven miles of the road, and return the valley to its wilderness state. On the other hand, the Park Service saw the road's purpose differently. Similar to Highway 20 and the Cascade River Road, it allowed park visitors to experience this new parkland in a familiar way; it was a way familiar to the Park Service as well -- by automobile and from the roadside. For this reason, one of the agency's first development projects was the reconstruction of the Bridge Creek Bridge in 1970, which had been closed because it was unsafe for vehicles. Afterwards, the service reopened the valley road to Cottonwood Camp.

The conditions in the Stehekin country differed, of course, from the park's other roads. There were a limited number of automobiles in the valley, and most visitors relied on private taxi services or the Park Service's successful shuttle service (entirely beyond High Bridge), which it instituted shortly after the park's creation. Still, the Park Service's decision to leave the entire length of the road open to Cottonwood was rooted in tradition, to ensure that all people could see the park. "Our main reason," Superintendent Roger Contor wrote, was "to provide the non-hiker and the elderly visitor a recreational opportunity in the Valley." (Ironically, the agency had proposed the opposite for the Cascade River Road.) Contor added that there was also a resource protection aspect to this position. By having the road end at Cottonwood, some five miles from Cascade Pass, instead of Bridge Creek, it would lighten the impact on Cascade Pass because hikers could reach the pass in a day hike and would be less inclined to camp overnight, a serious source of erosion for the area's fragile plants and soils. (This held true for hikers trekking up the pass from either the east or west sides.) [30]

The decision to keep the road open aroused considerable publicity and a "divergence of opinion," Contor observed, but the superintendent and agency officials tried to disarm their critics by assuring them that just as the road had been reopened above Bridge Creek, it could also be closed at a later date. Nevertheless, preservationists like McConnell and his fellow members of N3C fired back that the Park Service's actions to limit vehicle traffic in the recreation area and park had been ambiguous. To be sure, through its shuttle busses the agency had controlled the number of cars motoring up the road during the tourist season. However, the agency was missing an opportunity to "restore the wildness of the upper Valley" and give visitors the chance to have a "wilderness experience" by rationing the "heavily used high country near Cascade Pass." [31]

In fact, its improvements to the road over the years portended increased visitation and traffic in this otherwise wild country. In addition to Bridge Creek, for example, the agency replaced two other major bridges along the road, Tumwater (1973) and High Bridge (1975). It also expended considerable sums of money to maintain the entire road, but especially the upper section that was prone to heavy snows, avalanches, and washouts. Nature wanted to reclaim the road, but the Park Service resisted.

Perhaps the most troubling improvement came in 1973 when the agency paved the lower valley road, from the landing to Harlequin Bridge, to solve problems with dust during the dry season. While park managers surfaced the road to reduce maintenance costs (grading and snow removal), they also improved the road to please visitors accustomed to modern roadways -- or at least roads in other national parks -- and make their tour of the valley smoother and more enjoyable. Seemingly an innocent act, surfacing the road changed the character of the Stehekin Valley in the minds of McConnell and others. The primitive road, which they valued, had been modernized and the valley with it. It invited people to drive their cars at higher speeds, and thus quickened the unhurried pace of valley life. It also invited private landowners to bring more vehicles to the valley, causing still more traffic and congestion at the landing. It stood to invite further development of summer homes and private lodges, too, and possibly pressures to improve the entire length of the road as a two-lane highway. Instead of maintaining the historic character of the valley, the Park Service seemed to open the door to a world from which it was supposed to be protecting it. [32]

This depiction perhaps overdraws the intent of the Park Service, for, as with any issue involving life in the Stehekin Valley, things were much more complex than this. To be appreciated fully, the agency's approach to the Stehekin Road will be handled in a broader perspective elsewhere, yet it is relevant here to note that the Park Service's activities surrounding the road were mired in issues over its ownership, which the agency assumed in the early 1970s after a rather complicated process, and by its ownership its subsequent responsibilities to visitors, residents, and property owners. Pressure came from different directions, and the agency's improvement of the long-neglected Chelan County road could not satisfy everyone. Some residents, for example, welcomed federal ownership as a means to assure maintenance of the road and, above all, snow removal. In this respect, the agency was less a custodian of the nation's natural wonders and more a county road crew. Others, like McConnell, disagreed with the agency's road policies as a slow invasion of the park's wilderness. For its part, park managers thought they had struck a fair compromise, particularly in a park, Superintendent Contor noted, that had "fewer roads than any other major park in the system." [33]



While controversy surrounded the "few" roads that penetrated or led through some of the park complex, the primary means of access to the extensive backcountry of the new parkland went largely unnoticed. The Park Service inherited more than three hundred miles of trails from the Forest Service in the North Cascades. In the early 1970s, park officials, like Skagit Subdistrict Ranger Robert Hentges, contemplated a number of new trails. Some of these would have reached the proposed system of hostels or would have created new high scenic routes. More importantly, trails, according to the wilderness theme of the park, would be the central focus of the park experience. Throughout much of the park complex's first decade, maintenance crews and backcountry managers -- and to a large degree, private contractors -- opened and repaired the area's trails, following the standards outlined in the backcountry management plan and leaving the system relatively in the same way as the Forest Service had left it. Some of the major accomplishments centered on the completion of new trail bridges in the mid-1970s across Thunder, Big Beaver, Lightning, and Devil's creeks. Safety played an important part in replacing the old log bridges, hand lines, or other means of crossing that may have been responsible for several drownings. Two drownings happened on the Chilliwack River, where a third bridge was planned, to replace an unsafe hand line. Another trail-related problem stemmed from the Forest Service's rerouting of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1975, when it completed the four-mile Maple Pass Trail from Rainy Pass to the park complex's boundary. The reroute, park managers believed, was the Forest Service's way of "forcing" their hand to relocate the Pacific Crest Trail within the complex itself, a project that was estimated to cost up to $200,000.



The park complex's 1970 master plan set forth an interpretive concept that would allow visitors to experience the deep valleys, high peaks, and wild backcountry to gain an appreciation of the North Cascades as a scenic wonder and a tangible, thriving natural environment. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the park complex's interpretive program built on this theme through many kinds of services. These included evening -- or campfire -- programs given at the complex's major campgrounds, and exhibits and publications available at visitor information centers at Concrete, Newhalem, Marblemount, and Stehekin, as well as other points of entry into the park complex, such as Hozomeen and the boat bringing visitors up Lake Chelan (from Lucerne to Stehekin). Other forms of public education involved the development of ranger-guided and self-guided nature walks, with the installation of waysides at trail heads, and research into and the interpretation of the park area's rich human history. This program was especially important in Stehekin where park interpreters began to document the valley's history and focused a great deal of their attention on interpreting the Buckner Ranch, as well as other structures and sites evoking a sense of the valley's pioneer past. Still other aspects of interpretation emphasized environmental education sending park interpreters into local schools. [34]

The greatest source of interpretation, however, was Highway 20. Initially, park planners intended to concentrate most of their efforts at the Ruby Mountain tram; the experience of ascending from valley floor to summit would expose the visitor to the park on a sweeping scale. They also proposed to make Roland Point a main focus for evening programs. But when both projects were delayed, the highway corridor itself became the central means of introducing visitors to the park complex and conveying to them its wilderness significance. [35]

This turn of events placed greater importance on visitor information centers adjacent to the highway, located at Concrete (opened in late 1974), Marblemount, and Newhalem, as well as the Forest Service installation at Early Winters. These circumstances also highlighted the interpretative program already developed by Seattle City Light. In addition to its popular dam and lake tours, the city also offered a guided nature trail and museum at Newhalem. The park complex's 1976 interim interpretive prospectus also recognized the importance of the highway to interpretation. It proposed relocating the information center at Concrete to a larger facility at Newhalem (the Newhalem school), foreshadowing the need for a visitor center. Most of the park was hidden from motorists, the plan noted, unless they took the time to stop and acquaint themselves with the area. Thus, in addition to and while awaiting funding for a visitor center, the plan proposed waysides at key points along the highway. Of all the problems associated with interpreting the park from the narrow valley, the plan noted one of the most restrictive: there were few places, save the Diablo overlook, to provide extensive roadside facilities. [36] These and other aspects of the park complex's interpretation would await attention of managers in the following decade.

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999