Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Chapter 4:

Besides roads other traditional themes in visitor services commanded attention in the first decade of the park's management. In national parks, visitors had come to expect lodging and other amenities. The demand for them and their related costs varied widely throughout the park system. In some areas the Park Service has constrained private businesses and investors, while in others it has encouraged them or even provided its own services. By the 1960s, the national parks provided visitor services under a number of schemes: 1) by private construction, ownership, and operation of hotels and other facilities; 2) by government ownership and private operation; 3) by government ownership and operation; or 4) by government ownership and non-profit or cooperative operation. [1] The concessions in North Cascades followed the first and second schemes.

In 1965, several years before the creation of North Cascades, Congress passed the National Park Concession Policy Act that mandated stricter controls and uniformity of national park concessions. The law grew out of a lingering suspicion that somehow it is wrong for the federal government to grant a business exclusive rights to provide services in a park and to profit from it. The 1965 law directed that park concessionaires would contract with the Park Service to offer prescribed services to the public at rates set by the agency. In doing so, Congress formally established a controlled marketplace in which concession owners worried less about business competition than they did about their contractual rights and obligations. The law assured concessionaires a "reasonable opportunity" for making a profit "commensurate with the capital invested," but all too often the Park Service seemed to dictate their profit margins. [2]

Generally, the Park Service and those who owned or ran concessions within the park complex have not clashed in the same way that well-entrenched concessionaires have in older parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. At the same time, when the Park Service took over management of the North Cascades from the Forest Service, it inherited concession-type operations, most of which had been there for some time. There were three in Ross Lake NRA: Ross Lake Resort, Diablo Lake Resort, and Newhalem Resort; and one in Lake Chelan NRA: the Stehekin Landing. These were existing businesses that operated under Forest Service special use permits, rather than concession contracts, since the bureau did not have a concessions policy. While it was Park Service policy to convert these permits into concession contracts, park managers did not attempt this change immediately. According to the park's enabling legislation, park managers were to honor these permits and essentially live with what came with the new parkland. [3]

This state of affairs did not mean that the agency assumed a passive role when it came to concessions in the park complex. The relationship between the Park Service and concession operators was mutually beneficial. The Park Service relied on the services concessionaires provided to make the remote region more accessible and enjoyable for tourists. In the Skagit Valley this took on added importance when Highway 20 opened and large-scale visitor accommodations at Roland Point and the Ruby Mountain tram were delayed. The most critical area was Stehekin, a tourist destination since the turn of the century where visitors were dependant almost entirely upon services provided by the local community. In the early 1970s, for example, the Park Service worked with operators to upgrade facilities and make sure concessions met agency standards. On the one hand this meant that the agency supplied the Diablo Lake Resort with a new septic sewer system and the Stehekin Landing with a new sewer and new water system. On the other hand, it terminated the permit for the shabby Newhalem Resort. [4]

The success of these concessions and their relationship with the Park Service were a rather mixed lot. In some cases, the Forest Service legacy posed problems. The Ross Lake Resort, for example, was a sound business. It was located on the southern shore of Ross Lake just above the dam. In operation since the early 1950s, the resort was entirely afloat financially and physically. It maintained a collection of floating cabins, docks, and a fleet of small rental boats, among other facilities, and offered its clientele lake sightseeing and fishing opportunities. Its owner, Wayne Dameron, had managed to succeed by maintaining a rather small operation and attracting patrons who returned on an annual basis. Dameron and the Park Service clashed, however, when Dameron wanted to expand with an eye to taking over the concession at Roland Point. [5]

In 1970, Dameron insisted that his previous negotiations with the Forest Service in the mid-1950s and his subsequent 1962 permit granted him the right -- without seeking Park Service approval -- to build sixteen new floating cabins and to set up operations at May Creek (near Roland Point) as the sole concession, to which he claimed he had "prior rights." Park managers were skeptical that the Roland Point development would become a reality because of City Light's High Ross plans, and because they doubted he could handle such a large operation. They also worried that the agency would be legally obligated to buy the cabins from Dameron should it cancel his permit to prevent his expansion. [6]

Underlying these matters was something more important than Dameron's abilities or the future of Ross Lake. The exchange revealed the Park Service's attempt to exercise its authority over concessionaires in the park complex, especially those, like Dameron, who were under old Forest Service permits. After consulting with the agency's solicitor and concessions division, park officials successfully resolved the issue in their favor. In January 1971, Superintendent White notified the concessioner that he did not have "previous approval to construct any cabins or facilities without written permission" from the Park Service, and for that matter without an approved site plan. (Apparently, the agency also revoked any rights Dameron may have had to the Roland Point concession.) Simultaneously, White overturned an earlier decision denying Dameron's request to construct two new floating cabins. Confident now in his ability to control the concessioner, the superintendent was willing to sanction plans for improving overnight lodging. [7]

The Park Service had a slightly different relationship with the Diablo Lake Resort. Like the Ross Lake Resort, the Diablo Lake Resort began its operations in the mid-1950s under a Forest Service special use permit. It was a family-owned and operated business, run by Howard Bradley, his wife and son. Bradley's concession was located on the northern shore of Diablo Lake, just below Ross Dam. The site, buildings, and facilities had been a construction camp for Seattle City Light's dam-building projects, all of which Bradley had converted into a modest business that offered housekeeping cabins, a small marina, and a grocery store. Open in the summer, Bradley's resort was a small operation that supported his family. Its size and secluded atmosphere attracted families seeking a quiet and restful summer weekend or longer vacation. In season, hunting and fishing were the resort's primary attractions.

Unlike Ross Lake Resort, the Diablo Lake Resort was never a strong business after the establishment of the park in 1968 and came close to failing entirely throughout the 1970s. The reasons for the business's decline seemed to be linked to poor planning and overextended finances. Both Bradley and the Park Service anticipated increased visitation once Highway 20 was completed and that the resort would play a major role in providing visitor accommodations and services in the new park. For this reason, Bradley appears to have been anxious to expand and improve his resort. He wanted to construct a restaurant, store, and new cabins (thirty). He also wanted to add a swimming pool, kid's trout pond, and playground; provide rental horses; renovate the twenty existing cottages; and upgrade the water system, among other general and related improvements. The Park Service supported Bradley's plans and produced a development concept plan in 1971 that essentially covered these proposals and projected their completion. [8]

There were questions, however, about just how much the resort should expand and what its long-term role in serving park visitors would be. The Park Service's plan, for example, suggested that after the highway was completed, the resort would serve an "immediate need for accommodations and services in the recreation area." In the future, though, other Park Service projects -- those at Roland Point and Newhalem -- would become the major centers of visitor services, and thus Diablo Lake Resort would continue to function as a small vacation retreat. Bradley, though, seems to have thought his business would continue to grow and be central to the park's visitor services. For this reason, perhaps, in the early 1970s he financed the initial phase of his expansion, a new restaurant, for a large sum of money -- $180,000 -- which after construction delays (brought on by an environmental impact statement and poor plans) and other financial obligations increased to $250,000 by 1973. As it turned out, Bradley's restaurant, which opened in June 1975, never produced the revenues necessary to make his loan payments, and by the late 1970s Bradley was putting his failed business up for sale. [9]

Bradley and the Park Service apparently made poor assumptions about what the new park and renovations to the resort would bring. Although agency officials questioned the size of Bradley's restaurant (which would seat seventy-five people) and its related costs, they supported Bradley's plan and converted his special use permit to a concession contract in 1974. Superintendent White believed, as Bradley did, that the restaurant was generally a sound idea; it would serve the resort's overnight guests as well as bus tour groups and other travelers on the new highway. An estimated 10,000 people a day would pass over the new road. With his closest competition being in Marblemount, Bradley could also expect to attract local residents employed by Seattle City Light and living in Newhalem and Diablo. Finally, as the resort expanded, the restaurant would come to rely less on highway business and more on its overnight guests. Needless to say, these expectations fell short of reality. Poor signing and difficult highway access, among other things, plagued the business, and in the coming years park officials would work with Bradley and the resort's subsequent owners to resolve these problems. [10]

Of all the concessions in the park, Stehekin's was the most important. Stehekin's popularity increased dramatically once the park complex was established. But it was also remote, accessible only by boat, small plane, foot, or horse, and visitors depended more on the services offered here than elsewhere in the new parkland. Most summer visitors, for example, traveled uplake from Chelan on the vessel Lady of the Lake, a four hour trip, and returned the same day, spending less than two hours in the valley. Some two hundred passengers arrived at the landing together and toured by bus or other means as many sights as they could see in a limited amount of time. Others, planning longer trips, ventured up the valley and into the backcountry for extended backpacking or horseback trips, or simply spent the night at Stehekin Landing where they could find lodging and food. In short, Stehekin was the central gateway for all visitors entering or leaving the southern section of the park complex, and thus its services were a key management concern.

Agency officials decided that their best option for controlling and managing visitor services in Stehekin was to acquire some of the existing businesses at the landing and lease them to concessionaires. By 1970, the Park Service purchased the landing's three private resorts: the Golden West Lodge, the Stehekin Boatel and Cafe, and the Swissmont Lodge. [11] The agency's master plan called for improving the landing area to handle the larger numbers of visitors expected to arrive as the reputation of the new park spread. The long-range goal was to reserve the landing area -- with its limited space -- for existing day-use activities of the Stehekin community and incoming tourists, and relocate overnight accommodations away from the village. However, in these early years, the agency continued the services much as they were to meet the immediate needs of park visitors.

At the same time, agency officials worked to consolidate and improve the lodging, food, and other services available at the landing. By the early 1970s, they had reached an important step in this process when the use-and-occupancy leases retained by the owners of the Swissmont and Golden West lodges expired. The owner of the Boatel, Curt Courtney, had sold his property outright to the Park Service. Afterwards, the Park Service closed the Golden West to overnight lodging; the old hotel and its related cabins and outbuildings required extensive renovations to meet Park Service standards for which the agency did not have the funding. Instead, it was converted into an interpretive facility and visitor center.

Perhaps the most significant change came when park managers combined the Boatel and Swissmont into one concession, which came to be known as the North Cascades Lodge. As Superintendent Lowell White recalled, it seemed to be a practical and efficient way to operate the visitor services at the landing. Both park managers and a number of Stehekin residents believed that a single concessioner would help bring some sense of order and decorum to the landing. Prior to the Park Service assuming control of the businesses there, the landing had the atmosphere of "a three-ring circus" or "a zoo," some residents complained. "One summer," according to one account, "the competing businesses installed loudspeakers at the landing, and each tried to outdo the others in luring the boat passengers in for lunch and lodging. Lodge employees were sent out to greet passengers and direct them to one lodge or another." [12] As one park staffer observed, this type of activity hardly impressed upon the visitor the atmosphere of a national park; to the contrary, the whole appearance conjured up images of one's arrival in "Shang-Hai, or some other similar city!" [13]

Finding the right concessioner for the landing also figured prominently in consolidating services at the landing. The landing's early concessionaires, Stan Hutson who operated the Swissmont (or Stehekin Landing Concession) and John O.E. Moore who operated the Boatel, seemed to have performed poorly in the close-knit Stehekin community and the limitations imposed by the valley's physical environment. [14] By 1972 both had sold their operations to Robert Byrd, a long-time Stehekin resident. In his selection of Byrd for the Stehekin Landing concession, Superintendent White noted that Byrd had the experience to operate the concession. He had been operating the shuttle bus and rafting trips down the Stehekin River for two seasons. He had innovative ideas for improving and adding public services, and he "worked extremely well with the National Park Service." Above all, White stated, Byrd's familiarity with Stehekin life was central to his decision. (Byrd's uncle was Ray Courtney, an influential and respected valley resident.) According to the superintendent,

The greatest advantage Byrd offers is his rapport with the Stehekin Valley and the people who live there. Since this concession is not only a summer operation for the traveling public but also an important service to residents of the valley during the off season, Byrd with his knowledge of the people and locale in our estimation can provide the best overall continuing service....We think he could offer a good means of...pulling the Stehekin Valley residents together toward a common cause, which would not only benefit them but the park and traveling public as well. [15]

At first, White's faith in Byrd seemed well placed. In addition to food and lodging, Byrd offered a variety of services, including a shuttle bus, bicycle rentals, float trips, boat rentals, gasoline, and a Rainbow Falls bus trip. Byrd also complied with the Park Service's desire to keep the restaurant open throughout the year as a service to local residents, as a way to strengthen community relations, though often at a financial loss. But in 1976 Byrd's relationship with the Park Service soured, and the main reason White valued Byrd as a concessioner -- his local connections -- became the source of tension. Rather than acting as a unifying force in the community, Byrd seemed intent on dividing the community and pitting it against the Park Service.

On the surface, the rift was triggered by the Park Service's decision to take over the shuttle bus system from Byrd. The Park Service based its decision on a 1976 transportation study that, in general, recommended improvements in the valley's shuttle system to both expand the service and make it more efficient. In doing so, the agency could accomplish two things: provide better transportation for visitors and attempt to decrease residential traffic. The agency would charge a nominal fee to visitors and provide the service free to residents. [16]

Byrd, however, interpreted the agency's actions as an infringement on his rights as the owner of a private business. Moreover, he believed that the Park Service's plans portended more serious threats to the unique way of life in Stehekin. As the federal government slowly and, in his mind, secretly wrested control from individuals, their livelihoods and independence (namely the freedom to drive where and when they pleased) would be restricted. Byrd expressed his views at public meetings and in regional newspapers. What began as a critique of the Park Service's plans for the shuttle system soon extended to include nearly every aspect of the agency's presence in, and its plans for, the valley. Ultimately, he concluded that the federal government's only virtuous act would be for the Park Service to relinquish control of most services and management tasks to valley residents and businesses. [17]

Regional Director Russell Dickenson assured Byrd that the Park Service would work to improve its communications with him and other Stehekin residents as well as include them in the agency's planning efforts. For his part, Superintendent White agreed with Dickenson, but he also thought that Byrd's complaints stemmed from his inability to deal with a bureaucracy and a general misunderstanding of how the relationship between the Park Service and a concession operator functioned. It was mutually beneficial; each one helped the other and one depended on the other. White noted, for example, that nearly all of the Stehekin District's operations and development funds had been spent on the landing itself and valley road and directly aided Byrd's concession. Among these improvements were two sets of public docks at the landing, a remodeled restaurant and restrooms, a new sewer and water system, improved cold storage facilities, alternate power and energy sources (propane gas), landscaping, and general road maintenance and renovations of the valley road. In return, the North Cascades Lodge provided park visitors modest amenities that would enable them to enjoy the park for short or long periods of time.

Despite attempts to resolve their differences, the Park Service and Robert Byrd parted ways in the late 1970s. [18] Byrd apparently did not renew his temporary concessions permit and negotiations for a five-year concessions contract, begun in November 1976, failed. Thus, it seems, Byrd walked away from the business, and in October 1977, the North Cascades Lodge closed. By the following spring, however, the Park Service had awarded a new concession contract to Gary Gibson and Randall Dinwiddie, who reopened the lodge on a limited schedule in March 1978 and by the summer visitor season had it open full time. [19]

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999