Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Chapter 5:

In March 1970, Superintendent Roger Contor affirmed his belief, as well as the Park Service's, that North Cascades was America's "wildest national park." The new park, Contor noted, possessed the "classic attributes" of wilderness: "rugged high mountain character, glaciers, alpine lakes, rivers and streams, alpine forests and meadows, native wildlife and remoteness." Its most distinguishing characteristic was its inaccessibility. "Terrain, vegetation, and unforgiving weather all join hands against the wilderness traveler," he concluded. Later that year, Contor and his staff met one of the park's legislative requirements by producing wilderness recommendations for the park complex. Released in June 1970, around the same time as the area's master plan, these recommendations proposed that some 516,000 acres be set aside as wilderness, excluding roads, private lands, and developed areas. With a few exceptions, the entire national park would be classified as wilderness, and to a much smaller extent so would some selected lands within the recreation areas. [1]

When the Park Service held hearings on its wilderness recommendations, preservationists "praised" the agency for its enlightened proposal. Its plan reflected a "forward thinking vision," a willingness to place the value of biological resources above development. What they considered especially important was the agency's protection of the two core areas of the national park -- the Picket Range and Eldorado Peaks. These were two areas that had been the subject of intense campaigning for wilderness protection in the years leading to the park's creation. [2]

Yet preservationists strongly criticized several items in the agency's otherwise sound plan. As we have already seen, aerial tramway proposals received a great deal of attention, because three of them -- the Price Lake, Colonial Creek, and Arctic Creek trams -- would have invaded areas recommended for wilderness. The tramways, they suggested, should be eliminated from park plans and their routes added to the park's wilderness proposal. (If they were not included, then they should be placed in a wilderness "escrow" account and returned to wilderness designation should these plans fail later.) [3]

A proposal for enclaves in the wilderness sparked even more opposition. The enclaves, areas excluded from wilderness classification, numbered eighteen altogether, most of them in the park's northern unit near the rugged Picket Range. The enclaves, wrote the Wilderness Society, undermined "the fundamental wilderness concept," for they would not be part of the "official wilderness, despite their natural wilderness character, and would not be subject to the provisions of the Wilderness Act." [4]

At the heart of the Wilderness Society's comments, and those of other preservation organizations, was that enclaves were "contrary to the intent and purpose of the Wilderness Act," the primary objective of which was to keep "inviolate from the works of man the wild lands placed within the National Wilderness Preservation System." Several of these enclaves were to accommodate shelters, hostels, and camping facilities, while others were to provide for mechanical devices, such as radio repeaters and snow-measuring devices. [5] The size, in addition to the content, of the enclaves was especially alarming to preservationists. The shelter enclaves (fourteen) were nine acres each, and the four hostels (or chalets) were thirty acres each. Presumably, the size of the enclaves reflected the fact that they would be serviced by helicopters. Moreover, the hostels would, like the chalets in Glacier National Park, provide overnight lodging, meals, and sanitation facilities. The wilderness plan proposed to erect these permanent structures in the park's most remote and wild section. And while they were well intentioned, the hostels would attract more visitors into the backcountry increasing the damage to this fragile environment and altering the peace and solitude so integral to a wilderness experience. Finally, the Wilderness Society concluded, their "presence would open the door for the introduction of a wide range of construction, equipment, and aircraft into the heart of the wilderness." Thus preservationists urged the Park Service to reconsider this aspect of its wilderness plan, for it would not only endanger the wilderness of the North Cascades but also set a dangerous precedent "leading to the degradation of wilderness values" throughout the national park system. [6]

Similarly, other features of the park's wilderness recommendations should be eliminated as well, expanding wilderness acreage in the process. The general theme here was that wilderness should encompass all of the park and recreation areas except for existing man-made creations such as Seattle City Light's reservoirs, as well as the Highway 20 corridor with its related recreational facilities and access points to the park's backcountry. This meant that the Park Service should eliminate the eighth-mile "roadless buffer zone" (or "management zone") surrounding the park complex's wilderness boundaries. It also meant the agency should extend wilderness boundaries down to the shoreline of Ross Lake and adjust those boundaries when and if the level of Ross Lake were raised with High Ross Dam. (This "escrow" clause also applied to other areas potentially affected by City Light's plans.) Likewise, wilderness boundaries should begin as close to the park's roadsides as possible. Private lands and mining claims, both patented and unpatented, could be included legally within the proposed wilderness boundaries and purchased or condemned at a later date. [7]

The Park Service revised its wilderness proposal, released in August 1970, in response to some but not all of these recommendations. There was some support of the agency's plans for tramways and hostels, with only minor opposition to the restrictions on motorized travel -- motor bikes and four wheel drive vehicles -- that wilderness classification would impose on lands in the recreation areas set aside as wilderness. The agency retained most of its "management" provisions in its final plan: namely the buffer zone, road right-of-ways, City Light developments, and several enclaves for shelters, camping facilities, radio repeaters, and snow-measuring devices. It was also decided to keep the Stehekin Road opened to Cottonwood, rather than close it at Bridge Creek and place this section of the upper valley under wilderness designation. [8]

By retaining these elements of its wilderness recommendations, the Park Service demonstrated that its conception of wilderness did not embrace a truly primitive landscape. But park officials also made some significant concessions. They omitted all of the tramway proposals except for Ruby Mountain, which was entirely within Ross Lake NRA, and retained the Arctic Creek tramway conditionally; that is, if it did not seem feasible after further study, it would be eliminated from park plans. (This, in turn, would happen.) Of equal if not greater significance was the agency's removal of the hostels from its final plan. It eliminated all four from the Picket Range, deleting one enclave altogether and reducing the other three to nine-acre parcels to accommodate existing shelters. [9]

Eliminating the hostels had both the support of preservationists and Park Service personnel. As Superintendent Contor recalled, the hostels were Director George B. Hartzog's idea, modeled largely after those in Glacier. Contor privately disliked the proposal for the same reasons expressed by the Wilderness Society, and other groups but he did not want to confront Hartzog over the issue. Instead, after learning that grizzly bears had been sighted in the park, he informed the director that hostels and grizzlies were incompatible. The former attracted the latter, and more seriously, grizzlies had recently killed or injured several visitors at Glacier's Granite Park Chalet. With this news and the pressure applied by leaders in the Wilderness Society, Hartzog agreed to get rid of the hostels. [10]

In December 1970, the Department of the Interior forwarded its wilderness recommendations for North Cascades to President Richard Nixon. The exact acreage of the proposal, 515,880 acres, covered land in the national park and two national recreation areas. Although the formal proposal had been completed, the wilderness recommendation's path into law languished for the next decade and a half as Congress considered numerous wilderness recommendations. Meanwhile, the park's wilderness recommendation continued to evolve. In the 1970s, it expanded as park managers acquired more private lands, dropped the buffer zone boundary, and eliminated more enclaves. Although buying private lands reflected a normal part of management, the other revisions were prompted by Congress. By 1975, the wilderness recommendation had increased to 528,550 acres. [11]

Despite this, the sluggish process of congressional approval kept the park complex's wilderness from becoming legal in the 1970s. The president first recommended the North Cascades wilderness to Congress on April 21, 1971. The North Cascades' recommendation was part of an omnibus bill made up of thirteen other parks and their wilderness proposals. The Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands held the first hearing on the legislation, Senate Bill 2453. Afterwards the agency revised its proposal and in 1975 Senator Henry M. Jackson introduced wilderness legislation for North Cascades. Although a companion bill was introduced into the House, and the same process repeated in 1976 and 1977, Congress failed to act on the legislation, something that was not unusual given the number of proposals before Congress. Other factors may have slowed the process as well, such as the status of mining claims, the need to complete an environmental impact statement to accompany the wilderness proposal, as well as support (or lack of it) for wilderness from the state's congressional delegation and local political leaders. [12]

Nevertheless, park officials managed the complex's backcountry as if it were legalized wilderness beginning with its first decade of existence. In one respect, this approach seems to reflect standard Park Service policy -- that all park backcountries were considered wilderness no matter their formal classification. In another respect, though, this approach represented a meaningful stage in the park complex's management history, and for that matter in the history of the Park Service. North Cascades was about wilderness. Some 92 percent of the complex lay within recommended wilderness and here park managers could carry out what they saw as the primary purpose of this parkland.

More than the physical landscape, timing played a role in the importance of wilderness management. This was a new parkland supposedly untainted by the tradition-bound problems of balancing visitor services with preservation that afflicted older parks. Rather than revising established uses or fending off development proposals that would otherwise damage the fragile alpine environments, park managers envisioned that they would set a new course based largely on the ideals expressed in the 1963 Leopold Report (and empowered by the Wilderness Act of 1964). That is, supported by ecological research, wilderness management -- and resource management in general -- would strive to preserve natural systems and when possible restore biological resources to their "original conditions." During the park's first ten years, the major themes in backcountry management were established. Both backcountry managers and biologists faced several issues -- controlling the numbers of people in, and their impacts on, the backcountry; restoring damaged areas; limiting the use of pack stock (horses) to protect high country meadows among other areas; and coming to terms with structures and other developments in wilderness -- camps, toilets, trails, shelters, and the like.

Superintendent Contor, an exponent of wilderness preservation and the Leopold Report, fashioned the beginnings of the backcountry management program directed at these issues; he produced guidelines for a backcountry management plan in December 1970. It was one of his last duties as superintendent. [13] In some ways Contor's guidelines represented a new direction in Park Service management with wilderness as its primary concern, yet other parks, such as Sequoia and Kings Canyon, had been fashioning similar policies since the early 1960s. [14] What Contor recognized was that North Cascades was a product of the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1960s, and that the general public would, for the most part, accept management policies directed at regulating some types of uses and excluding others, along with restoration projects. In this regard, the main goal was maintaining the ecological vitality of this impressive landscape.

But the environmental movement, ironically, also spirited on thousands of new backpackers to search for a wilderness experience and thus to invade and damage the parkland's fragile alpine reaches. Adding to the impact of the backpacker revolution was the geography of the North Cascades. It may have been a vast area but only some 350 miles of trail traversed this steep terrain, confining people to a small percentage of the park. "As in most wilderness areas," Contor wrote, "the part that has been used has been unintentionally misused. Popular places have been littered and denuded, the trees hacked up, the flower meadows trampled or laced with trails, and the few level spots strewn with fireplace scars." The area most severely damaged by concentrated use, and the area to which Contor referred, was the sensitive subalpine zone, the area most susceptible to damage. This fragile band of flower-covered meadows, lakes, stunted evergreens, and melting snowbanks formed roughly eight percent of the park's wilderness. Its beauty drew nearly all who entered the mountains and thus this zone sustained about eighty percent of human use. "Protection of this zone," Contor noted, was "the key to the entire wilderness management effort." [15]

Traditional management problems, however, affected wilderness management, too. In the parkland's spectacular wilderness, the concept of a fresh start ran head long into the area's Forest Service past. The park was only beginning anew under Park Service management, and in reality, it shared more in common with older parks than at first glance because it had inherited well-established patterns of use under six decades of Forest Service control.

Contor's guidelines reflected the importance of protecting high country meadows and soils and revising how people experienced this country, largely through restoration, rationing, research, and education. In the case of popular places like Cascade Pass especially, this meant restoring delicate plants and rehabilitating the soils through a revegetation program, and at the same time eliminating camping and instituting policies for day-use only. The success of this approach lay in a backcountry permit system to distribute hikers throughout the parkland's wilderness and control where they camped (and thus the resulting human waste and trash). The permit system would only be acceptable to visitors, he believed, after a "reasonable number of campsites" were available, and after park rangers "sold" the idea to visitors through public education. [16]

Protecting the backcountry would come in other ways as well. Eventually, campfires -- and related wood gathering -- would be prohibited altogether in the subalpine zone to prevent any further damage to what few trees or snags existed there. Contor also proposed marking trails with stakes to guide hikers across snowbanks blocking trails as one way to minimize damage to plant communities, particularly in sensitive areas like Cascade, Park Creek, Whatcom, and Easy passes.

More than hikers, horses inflicted the most serious damage to the park's high country, even though their use had been modest. Contor recommended a number of possible restrictions in order to retain, rather than eliminate, horse use including separate camps, more research for low-impact horse camping, proper trail construction, regulating the number of commercial outfitters and the number horses in any party. Later, Contor made what is considered a historic policy of limiting horse parties to twelve horses, based on the advice of long-time horse packer Ray Courtney. [17] Finally, the superintendent recommended that the best form of wilderness protection was to keep improvements to a minimum, especially new trails, and to discourage such as fish stocking in high mountain lakes. In this way, park managers would not encourage more use and thus maintain the values most people cherished in their wilderness experience -- solitude, primitive conditions, self-reliance.

Contor's guidelines, slightly revised, evolved into the park complex's first backcountry management plan in 1974. Drafted by Superintendent Lowell White and his staff, it became the blueprint for park managers for the next decade. Briefly, the 1974 plan implemented a program to both promote and regulate backcountry use employing the concept of "optimum level of use," rather than the more popular "carrying capacity" concept. The optimum level of use was a way park managers gave priority to the visitor experience, resource protection, and funding. In general, park managers would do what they had always done -- focus their energy where the most people went and subsequently repair and regulate the use of those resources being harmed the most by backcountry visitors. Consequently, the plan would "provide more camping and hiking opportunities" within easy reach of trail heads and "provide fewer" in the more "remote and fragile areas" of the park. Put another way, the plan aimed to "reduce use in fragile areas and to increase or stabilize use in resilient areas," through a program of backcountry patrols, trail relocation, trail and camp restoration, and permits. [18]

The optimum level of use concept, however, presented something of a moving management target; the number of backcountry visitors would always be "arbitrary," in which case it seemed that park managers were readying themselves to react to problems rather than engaging in long-term resource management planning based on scientific research. Visitation rather than preservation seemed more on the minds of park officials. It was estimated, for example, that the number of backcountry campsites would have to be doubled (from 160 to 300) over a ten year period to allow increasing numbers of visitors a wilderness opportunity. That said, the plan did establish some strict guidelines for campsite locations, sizes, design, and sanitation requirements; restrictions on campfires and horse use; standards for trails, signs, and sanitation facilities and practices; and a monitoring system -- using photographs, written narratives, and transect lines -- to assess environmental damage in backcountry areas. [19]

The effectiveness of this management program hinged on, as Contor suggested, the permit system and the restoration of damaged subalpine environments. First, in 1973, just prior to the release of the backcountry management plan, the permit system went into operation. Broadly speaking, the system was to limit the size of parties, disperse as well as inform visitors about wilderness regulations and practices, and acquire statistics on backcountry use. The permit system was also intended to streamline, or coordinate, the issuing of backcountry permits with neighboring national forest wilderness areas. The center of the park's wilderness operations was located at Marblemount, the backcountry -- or today's wilderness -- information center. Although visitors could obtain permits at other park portals, such as the Forest Service's Glacier Ranger Station, Marblemount's staff would track the permits and set quotas for campsites and travel routes. In addition, rangers checked permits in the backcountry, providing further opportunities for public contact, education, and protection. The permit system worked well, averaging a high rate of compliance. Over time park managers refined the system. Most noteworthy, they dropped the original reservation system because it was "time consuming and confusing" and replaced it with a first-come, first-served system in 1976. [20]

Second, from the beginning park managers saw as their highest priority the protection and restoration of subalpine environs, especially the severely eroded low-elevation passes. Throughout the 1970s, regulating the use of and replanting these denuded areas with native plants epitomized the "new approach" to resource management in the National Park Service, based on the influence of the Leopold Report and a more recent ecological approach to management practices and decisions. Nowhere in North Cascades was this symbolized better than at Cascade Pass. Overrun for years by horse parties and hikers, Cascade Pass slowly regained some of its natural integrity by the late 1970s through the combination of research, revegetation, and restrictions.

The story of Cascade Pass intersects with other management concerns in North Cascades, such as the park's wilderness mission and issues of access. The park's creation had assured protection of this wild country and prevented the possible completion of a road over Cascade Pass. But how to protect the popular Cascade Pass, one of the few places where the casual visitor could see this spectacular country, was not resolved upon the park's establishment. In fact, traditional concerns and management approaches persisted. Preservationists called for closing the Stehekin Valley Road above Bridge Creek and returning it to a wilderness state, thus making it more difficult to reach the pass and reducing the pressures on it. Yet the Park Service thought otherwise; keeping the road open would allow visitors to drive the road, have a relatively traditional park experience, and by virtue of easy access and the schedule of the shuttle bus, limit hiking to a daytime activity. (It was believed that camping was the major source of damage.) On the other side of the pass, where the majority of visitors entered, the Park Service attempted to regulate access by initiating a shuttle system, but public opposition quelled this proposal, mainly to preserve the traditional, democratic right to see a national park from one's own car.

Use still dominated the Park Service mission, though a commitment to the protection of biological resources now shared the same stage. This commitment, however, did not lead to the closure of Cascade Pass entirely, but rather to a compromise of more restricted activities and rehabilitation. Nevertheless, park officials developed a successful program, building on early efforts by the Forest Service, dedicated to the protection of the pass's natural values. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several botanists and plant ecologists, namely Dr. Dale Thornburgh, Dr. George Douglas, and Joe and Margaret Miller, studied the erosion problem at Cascade Pass, documenting the damage to plants and soils caused by both trails and camp sites and years of overuse. [21]

Based on these and informal observations, the Park Service decided to close the pass to camping (and horse use) in 1970, and devised a plan in 1974 to restore the camp sites at the pass and its vicinity to their natural conditions, improve trails, and revegetate the denuded meadows. After the plan was released, park officials proceeded to close all campsites in the immediate area surrounding Cascade Pass -- among them Sahale Arm, Doubtful Lake, Pelton Basin, Trapper Lake, Mixup Arm, and Basin Creek -- and initiate a multi-year rehabilitation program. The intent was to permanently close Cascade Pass to camping, develop a campground at the end of the Cascade River Road, and relocate other camp sites to lower elevations or more resilient zones. [22]

Nursing the subalpine environment back to health proved to be the greatest challenge, the greatest element in the program, and ultimately its greatest accomplishment. Although many park staffers and volunteers contributed their time, none of this would have been possible without the tireless and selfless efforts of volunteers Joe and Margaret Miller; they not only studied the natural conditions at Cascade Pass but grew plants from seeds and seedlings harvested from Cascade Pass at their home in Bellevue, Washington (and later in cold frames at Marblemount), and then replanted them at the pass. By 1978, the revegetation of Cascade Pass was seventy-five percent complete, and similar projects were underway for many of the park's other subalpine passes and popular camping areas, such as Copper and Egg lakes, Boundary Camp, Park Creek Pass, and Thunder Creek and Big Beaver basins. [23]

By the late 1970s park managers, like Skagit District Manager John E. Jensen, believed that the backcountry management program was working well, primarily because the backcountry management plan was "very good." Revised in 1977, the plan was essentially the same as its earlier version. The young program had also reached this point because of a growing staff, composed of a permanent backcountry ranger, eleven seasonal backcountry technicians, and nine volunteers, totaling twenty-one people in 1977. Volunteers, made up of Student Conservation Association (SCA) and Volunteers in the Parks (VIP), played a significant role in operating the information center, conducting patrols, and, like the Millers, participating in the revegetation program. Backcountry Ranger Dan Taylor oversaw the Skagit District's revegetation program, and in the coming years, it would expand further through time donated by volunteers and under the guidance of Taylor's replacement, William Lester. [24]


For all its progress, however, backcountry management was a work in progress and the program would continue to evolve in the coming years. On the one hand, backcountry management maintained a constant vigil against threats to wilderness values, primarily in the form of private lands -- the most serious coming from mining. Mining cast a long human shadow over the North Cascades. Throughout the park complex's first decade, agency officials worked diligently to acquire the numerous patented mining claims (some 1,600 acres in the park itself, with smaller concentrations in Ross Lake NRA and the upper Stehekin Valley) as well as a vast number of unpatented claims (7,000) throughout the complex. Despite a rather successful program of acquisition and invalidation, the Park Service was not able to purchase the mining claims that posed the greatest harm to the park's wilderness setting. One of these was the cluster of patented claims in the Cascade Pass area, known as the Valuemines. The other was the group making up the Skagit Queen mining claims up the Thunder Creek basin. This latter claim presented the most serious danger to the park, because in the mid-1970s its owners planned to develop their claims by constructing a road up Thunder Creek to the base of Boston Glacier, conducting exploratory operations, and setting up a milling facility, all of which would have scarred the backcountry beyond repair. [25]

On the other hand, changes in backcountry management would respond to administrative conditions. In 1977, Departing Backcountry Ranger Dan Taylor noted that the permit system still needed some refining in terms of the way the park tracked visitors. Working with the Forest Service to issue one permit for entry into either park or forest wilderness areas was especially important. [26]

Coming to terms with structures in the park's backcountry also ranked high on the priority list. At the center of this subject was the concept of wilderness as a primitive landscape, a place in which human influences were evanescent. Returning the park's wilderness to its "original condition" influenced a practice of, or at least an attitude for, razing all unnecessary structures, especially those that were inappropriately sited and concentrated visitor use in sensitive areas. Yet some, such as fire lookouts and shelters, remained for administrative purposes. Lookouts, inherited from the Forest Service as part of its fire suppression management system, continued to serve as fire watch stations; they also aided in backcountry management for patrols and radio relays. In this regard, they were more readily accepted by backcountry managers. [27]

In direct contrast, backcountry rangers and other park staffers believed that shelters degraded the backcountry and thus the wilderness experience. Moreover, the shelter issue touched on differences between the park's divisions, for some in the park's maintenance division contended that the shelters helped in their work -- that is, in the rigorous task of opening and improving the park's trails in the rugged and remote terrain of the North Cascades. The internal controversy was also fueled by Olympic National Park's recent policy of removing backcountry shelters. At the same time, a few outspoken visitors wanted the shelters preserved. By the late 1970s, the Park Service was reconsidering its treatment of backcountry shelters, especially in light of their historical significance and the agency's legal obligation to protect them and other historic structures. [28]

Another management practice, which often sparked conflicting views, was the use of helicopters. At the time, this mode of transportation received the support of backcountry managers. Preservationists had long criticized the practice of helicopter use in the park complex, particularly during the park's first years when planners and other park officials flew frequently over the northern Cascades. Given the nature of the park's mountainous and roadless country, helicopters presented the most effective means of accessing the park, recalled Superintendent Contor. In addition, helicopters also facilitated backcountry operations by supplying and distributing backcountry workers. This was a reasonable alternative to, and less environmentally destructive choice than, using pack stock. Although park officials recognized that helicopters presented another kind of modern intrusion in wilderness, they advocated that the use of both "helicopters and power equipment" (such as chain saws) be continued -- but in a judicious manner. [29]

In the next two decades of management, the Park Service would make significant strides in resolving these issues. A major starting point was the creation of the park's wilderness by an act of Congress in 1988. The language of the bill would also help resolve other nagging management problems, in particular those surrounding hydroelectric developments and the use of natural resources in the complex's two recreation areas.

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999