Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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The establishment of North Cascades placed it squarely within the postwar environmental movement and made it one of that movement's leading accomplishments. The park symbolized the postwar generation's efforts to preserve wilderness for its intrinsic values as well as its values for people's quality of life. The creation of the park, however, was only part of the task. Carrying out its mandate was another matter altogether. Considered by many a flagship park for wilderness preservation, North Cascades bore the marks of political compromise necessary for its creation in the politically divided period. North Cascades was a national park complex containing recreation areas and national park, all which had different purposes and ultimately triggered different expectations from the public. The Park Service has endeavored, often with a great deal of tension, to make wilderness -- as an ideal and a management concept -- the central focus of the park's administration.

Park managers and supporters greeted North Cascades with high hopes for preserving "true wilderness." They saw in this new park a way to shed the traditions of the past, to avert issues surrounding the paradoxical management mission of preservation and use. But traditional concerns often took center stage in the park's operations, for it was hard for the public and for the agency itself to conceive of a national park that did not conform to the Yellowstone and Yosemite models. In those parks, nature was preserved by accommodating tourism and developments that provided Americans access to and some amenities while in them. And so it was at North Cascades. No roads or other developments scarred the park's backcountry, but meanwhile administrators wanted to build up the two recreation areas to provide the basic comforts tourists had come to expect in national parks. In this respect, the park's wilderness, which was eventually protected by federal statute, was not the center of the park's administrative concerns. Rather, managers directed their efforts where the most controversy arose, namely the hydropower issues in Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the land policies and resource consumption issues in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. As one former superintendent observed, these issues, especially those in Stehekin, were the "tail that wagged the park."

Still, wilderness was central to the purpose of North Cascades, no matter the political issues surrounding Stehekin. What the history of the park's administration reveals is that the concept of wilderness -- and for that matter the national park ideal -- are not static but change to suit the needs of society at a particular time. In the politically tempestuous and environmentally conscious 1960s, the preservation of North Cascades was tantamount to saving a section of the world not yet exposed to atomic waste and overpopulation. In the 1990s, the concerns of an earlier generation seem less dramatic but nonetheless important. As the world grows smaller, park visitors have come to use North Cascades as an extension of their daily, urban-centered lives. Some come to run the trails and return home the same day. Others bask in the afterglow of the frontier in Stehekin. And still others find in North Cascades what first attracted calls for its protection as a national park: incomparable beauty. Park administrators face the challenge they always have had before them: to keep the wilderness ideal central to the park complex's purpose while accommodating a variety of uses that seem antithetical to that purpose.

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999