Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Chapter 2:

The North Cascades Act created a new park complex in October 1968, but the Park Service did not take over management of the region until January 1, 1969. The Park Service agreed to this date with the Forest Service to bring about an orderly transfer of national forest lands, records, and facilities for the new national park. The memorandum of agreement between the agencies, once engaged in a bitter dispute over the proposed park, worked effectively and gave the Park Service time to coordinate interim management of the region with the Forest Service for such things as recreation and firefighting, and set up its own operations. [1]

Two superintendents, Roger J. Contor and Lowell White, would guide the new park area through its first ten years. Roger Contor started as the first superintendent of North Cascades National Park in October 1968. Contor's background in wildlife biology, his experience working in natural area parks, and developing resource management plans and wilderness recommendations helped set the tone and direction for the park's management. Not yet forty years old and a fourteen-year veteran of the Park Service, Contor came to the park complex from Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where he was assistant superintendent. He considered the appointment the high point of his career. Prior to assuming his new job, Contor worked for several months in the Park Service's field office in Seattle, Washington, set up during the last stages of the park's establishment to aid Senator Jackson's legislative staff, conduct field work, and plan and promote the proposed park. His experience here would give him valuable insight into the new area's issues and needs.

Contor and other Park Service officials worked quickly to put the new park's administration into order in the months following establishment. They conceived of the park complex being managed as an interrelated whole with one superintendent and his staff, two districts -- the Skagit and Stehekin -- run by district managers who reported to the superintendent. (The Park Service borrowed this district manager concept from the Forest Service, but it had also been experimented with at Glacier National Park in the 1950s.) The agency also established the park's headquarters at Sedro Woolley, the Skagit District office at Marblemount, and the Stehekin District office at Chelan. By July 1969, the park's staff consisted of seven permanent and forty seasonal employees; the former were composed of career Park Service as well as former Forest Service employees, and the latter, maintenance workers and rangers, were drawn primarily from local communities. [2]

Selecting former Forest Service workers and local residents as employees of the new park complex served practical as well as political ends. Despite participating in field reconnaissance during the North Cascades Study Team's survey of the region and subsequent field work, the park managers knew little about the area under their care, and they gladly welcomed the national forest employees and relied on their experience in the early stages of management. In fact, two former Forest Service employees became the park's first acting district rangers. [3] On the other hand, hiring from local communities demonstrated the Park Service's interest in calming fears that a new park would destroy the local economy. It also demonstrated the agency's interest in striking up good relations with its new neighbors.

Public relations played a significant role in the park's early management. The park campaign left many communities, businesses, and residents surrounding the North Cascades resentful, and some fearful of how the new parkland would affect them. Smoothing over relations was important then to the new park's success, since park managers would be replacing familiar faces in Forest Service uniforms and living among and working with those who may have opposed the park or, at the very least, were leery of the Park Service's new regulations and its overall management mission. Furthermore, public relations were important to Senator Henry Jackson and Representative Lloyd Meeds. These were the politicians responsible for bringing the park to Washington; it lay within their districts, and they had a vested interest in its success.

In late 1968 and 1969, Jackson and Meeds conducted what amounted to publicity tours with Park Service and Forest Service officials in tow, holding public meetings with community leaders in Bellingham, Sedro Woolley, Wenatchee, and Chelan. The meetings enabled the politicians and agency representatives to show how the Forest Service and Park Service had put aside their differences and were now cooperating to coordinate the management of the northern Cascades. The meetings also provided a venue for elected as well as federal officials to mend relations with locals, discuss national park management philosophies and plans, and assure them that the new park would be to their benefit -- no matter what horror stories they may have heard from park opponents, including the Forest Service, during the heated moments of the park campaign.

Economic incentives helped most to smooth relations. Meeds and Jackson stressed the advantages communities would experience as service centers for tourists and park administrators. But gateway communities only stood to gain from the new park, and the influence of a powerful senator like Jackson, if they worked to support rather than oppose it. Thus, at Jackson's recommendation, park advisory committees formed in Skagit and Chelan counties to help "coordinate county and community cooperation" with the new park's personnel and capitalize on the tourism the parkland would bring to their regions, especially once Highway 20 opened and the park was developed for visitors. Ironically, many of the park's opponents turned into some of its biggest boosters. "There is no longer a controversy," stated Dave G. McIntyre, chairman of the Skagit Valley Advisory Board. "North Cascades Park is here and we all know it's here to stay. For those of us who might have questioned the idea in the beginning it behooves us to work now for its full development....In a matter of a few years we will be showing the nation one of its most beautiful areas." [4]

The spoils of the park campaign, one might argue, went to the losers rather than the victors. Placing Park Service offices in Chelan, Stehekin, Marblemount, and Sedro Woolley served both practical as well as political purposes. In one respect, the selection of these sites represented a changing of the guard, from Forest Service to Park Service. In another, they reflected Jackson's influence, promises made or implied to local communities about their welfare after the park battle had ended. The location of Park Service offices on the west side of the park complex exemplifies this best. Neither of them lies within the complex's boundaries. The Marblemount Ranger Station was a logical place to locate a park office, for it was situated at the confluence of the Skagit and Cascade rivers, the two entryways by road into Ross Lake recreation area and the park. The ranger station, however, belonged to the Mount Baker National Forest, and the Forest Service did not necessarily have to turn it over to the Park Service, Roger Contor recalled, but they did at Jackson's request.

The location of the park complex's headquarters aroused more interest among the communities in the Skagit Valley. Marblemount, Concrete, and Sedro Woolley vied for the honor and related commercial benefits. Concrete, for example, wiped away sixty years of cement dust after the Lone Star Cement Company phased out its operations and launched a beautification campaign, aimed partially at attracting the federal government as one of the town's new employers. Community leaders portrayed Concrete as the "natural" location for the park headquarters, close to the park but with enough services to support the Park Service operation. [5]

Similarly, Sedro Woolley wanted to be the park's permanent headquarters and boosted itself in a similar light but with far more success. The Northern State Hospital was being shut down, a major source of revenue, it seems, for the city and the park headquarters might fill the void. The signs that the Park Service would choose Sedro Woolley were good. In 1968, the Park Service made Sedro Woolley the new park's temporary headquarters. As Superintendent Contor noted, the city was the "best immediate compromise" in the agency's search for an "'ideal' headquarters location." It was the largest city near the park, accessible year round, and close to major highways. In addition, Sedro Woolley was conveniently situated near sources of supplies, repairs, and services. Moreover, at some sixty miles from the park complex, it was far enough from any one section of the park "so that all districts receive equal attention." Politics also worked in Sedro Woolley's favor. The city had the support of Governor Daniel J. Evans and Senator Jackson. The city commanded their attention, it seems, not only because of the hospital's closure, but also because the Skagit Corporation, the area's largest industry, was located there. Thus, in December 1970, Senator Jackson and Congressman Meeds informed Mayor William O. Pearson (who had vehemently opposed the park) that Sedro Woolley had been chosen as the park's permanent headquarters.

Governor Daniel J. Evans also participated in the healing process after the park's establishment. Evans decided that, despite the divisive nature of the park campaign, the state would back the new park and seek to enhance its management as well as the entire region around it. To this end, he created the North Cascades Reconnaissance Task Force in December 1968. The task force served as a forum for the future development and protection of the North Cascades, especially the access corridors to the new national park and recreation areas. In this respect, it offered a common ground for government agencies -- federal, state, and county -- where plans could be addressed and discussed, and where conflicts could be aired and hopefully resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Moreover, the task force illustrates the kind of complex management environment Park Service officials worked within; it suggests the diversity of management concerns and interest in the new parkland which park managers encountered, and stood to benefit from, as they began to shape the park complex. One might think of it as Washington State's version of the United Nations for the management of the North Cascades. [6]


The direction the new park's management would take was outlined in three planning documents: a master plan, wilderness recommendations, and a Park Service-Forest Service joint management and development plan for the northern Cascades. Together they would guide the park for the foreseeable future, establishing in the process its management mission and satisfying its legislative mandates.

Completed in 1970, the complex's master plan, a rather slim and quickly produced document compared to contemporary plans, gave a broad and conceptual treatment of the new parkland's mission and management objectives. Simply put, the preservation of the park's "spectacular wilderness qualities" would inform all development and management decisions, and the two recreation areas would be managed and developed for "their great recreational potential, and as wilderness thresholds." Taken together, the park and recreation areas were united in the overall management of the park complex, the central purpose of which was to "offer to the American people a wealth of scenic, scientific, and recreational opportunities in a wilderness environment." [8]

One of the more significant management considerations for the new parkland was its proximity to a large urban population. At the time, nearly 75 percent of Washington's population resided in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan region. This meant that some 2 million people were within a two-hour drive of the Skagit Valley and the heart of the park complex. Historically, residents from those cities had formed the majority of visitors to the state's oldest national park, Mount Rainier. The area could also expect to draw visitors from an even wider range of cities in the Puget Sound, Oregon, California, and British Columbia because Interstate 5 placed these urban centers within "reasonable driving distance" of the North Cascades.

A key element in that attraction would be Highway 20. Scheduled for completion in 1972, it would "revolutionize" vacation travel patterns, linking the heart of the new parkland with the interstate system and other state highways on the east and west sides of the state. Thus the Park Service expected that the park complex would be used extensively by day or weekend visitors and perhaps to a lesser extent by those seeking out lengthier encounters with the park's primary feature and most distinctive attraction, wilderness. The park complex was, as the master plan stated, the key link in an extensive system of recreational lands in both Canada and northern Washington, the majority of which were wilderness.

Ironically, the new park complex, despite its wilderness mission, derived its uniqueness from its close relationship with "major urban and industrial centers," a situation that "exists nowhere else in the United States." In other words, North Cascades was in the orbit of an expansive and influential urban-industrial population which would increasingly seek out unspoiled lands and recreational developments within its reach. Managing the new park as a wilderness and recreational complex would not occur separate from but in direct relationship with this urban-industrial region. As the plan concluded, traditional national park management concerns would be prevalent, for "the importance of this resource to the Nation and the region makes it essential that all who wish to experience its features be able to -- if only briefly, and from a distance." [9]

The park's wilderness recommendations and joint management plan also answered questions about how the park would be administered. First, the wilderness recommendations, produced around the same time as the master plan, called for preserving approximately 516,000 acres of the park complex as wilderness. With the exception of roads, private lands, and developed areas, the majority of wilderness would encompass land within the two park units and a much smaller amount in the recreation areas. With this review, the Park Service demonstrated its commitment to wilderness protection. The wilderness of the North Cascades, Superintendent Contor noted, was "superb." It possessed "the classic attributes of rugged high mountain character, glaciers, alpine lakes, rivers and streams, alpine forests and meadows, native wildlife and a sense of remoteness." This "wilderness quality" was central to the creation of the national park, and its "preservation will be the keystone in the use and management of the areas." [10]

Second, the coordinated management plan for public-use facilities with the Forest Service, drafted by 1970 but not officially released until 1974, rounded out the administration of the new parkland and its relationship with the three national forests (Mt. Baker, Okanogan, and Wenatchee) surrounding it. Congress had forced the two rival agencies to cooperate for political reasons; the park and recreation area boundaries followed the lines of least resistance. They excluded, for example, coveted commercial stands of timber in many of the approach valleys that led to the new park, such as along the Cascade River. The boundaries left out the Granite Creek section of Highway 20 to satisfy the Forest Service and the ski industry lobby, primarily. The revision omitted, as park advocates argued, a scenic entryway into the park complex. In this respect, the park complex was one piece of a larger wilderness and recreation area puzzle that included national forest lands. Thus, it behooved both agencies to coordinate the management of adjacent lands for financial as well as practical reasons.

The interagency planning teams, led by Neal Butterfield for the Park Service and Harold Chriswell for the Forest Service, covered a wide range of concerns -- from the use, transfer, and maintenance of shared trails, roads, and parking areas to the joint operation of visitor information centers and ranger stations. The final plan, an amalgam of both agencies' separate management plans for their respective areas, identified cooperative programs covering fire management, wilderness and backcountry management, visitor information services, the development and maintenance of roads and trails, and general assistance in search and rescue operations, law enforcement, use regulations, permits, and sign programs. The agencies also identified geographical areas of common interest where they would carry out some cooperative ventures, such as the North Fork of the Nooksack River, the Baker Lake area, the Highway 20 corridor, the Cascade River Road and Cascade Pass areas, and Lake Chelan. [12]

Three places had high priority for early development. One was at Fields Point on the south shore of Lake Chelan. The Forest Service would acquire Fields Point and create a visitor information and docking facility staffed by the Forest Service and Park Service. Another was at Early Winters where the Forest Service would construct a visitor information station to serve as the eastern portal to the North Cascades on Highway 20. And the third was at Concrete, where the Park Service would install a visitor contact station as the western portal to the park complex. Though early plans called for staffing these latter two facilities with park and forest employees, the final plan omitted this reference and implied that they would simply complement each other.

Recommendations for ski-area developments were noticeably missing from the plan, although their proposed development near the park, in the recreation areas or adjacent national forest lands, had been one of the main reasons behind the joint study. Roger Contor reported that the team had trouble finding any sites for a ski area close to Highway 20. The only option within the park complex was Ruby Mountain, and team members ruled it out because its slopes were too steep, thus ending the threat of ski area development in the new parkland. [13] The Forest Service's winter sports study expressed little optimism about developing ski areas in the future, too. The Forest Service looked at thirteen sites on three national forests and concluded that only one, Sandy Butte near Winthrop, possessed the "necessary physical characteristics for ski development." The agency, accordingly, recommended that the ski-area industry concentrate on developing existing sites, like Mt. Baker, Stevens Pass, and Crystal Mountain. It also recommended that the operators should improve the physical appearance of these and other ski areas through natural landscaping in order to maintain a scenic appearance year round. [14]

In what seemed to be an uncharacteristic emphasis on scenic preservation, the Forest Service appeared to be taking some bold steps compared to past management practices that would ultimately benefit the park's protection. In its plan, the agency expressed that its guiding philosophy was "the preservation of outstanding scenic resources, the careful management for natural beauty of the corridors and approach routes to the scenic core of the North Cascades, and the recreational development of the area to provide a maximum of diversified recreational opportunities." Hence, the report proposed to establish three roadless areas and nine scenic areas, totaling some 800,000 acres, around the perimeter of the park complex. [15]

The joint study also shed some light on the nature of Forest Service and Park Service relations in the wake of the park's establishment. Thrown together by law, park and forest officials put aside their past differences and entered, at least officially, into a new "spirit of cooperation." Superintendent Contor expressed a genuine respect and admiration for Chriswell; he and his staff worked closely with the forest supervisor during the transition phase of the park's early management. [16]

The planning process, however, revealed some internal struggles within the Forest Service following the loss of the North Cascades. Chriswell believed that his agency had lost the North Cascades because "We sat on our hands," and failed to give the public a clear understanding of how the Forest Service would manage the range for outdoor recreation. Indecision plagued the agency. "We find ourselves in a serious predicament with the public," he told the regional forester. "They have been anxiously watching what we are going to do with this scenic mountain area (the great beauty of the North Cascades does not stop at the National Park boundary) as a result of the National Park Act." The forest supervisor urged his superior to approve the new recreation plan -- or make some firm decision on the direction the forests would move in. Otherwise, strained relations with both industry representatives and preservation groups would grow. The former had already criticized the agency's plan for reducing timber production and accused the bureau of acting "like the Park Service," while the latter had protested that the agency was not guaranteeing enough scenic protection. Without a strong stand, the Forest Service stood to lose perhaps more land, as the recent Mount Baker legislation suggested. Chriswell's emphasis on scenic protection could be interpreted as an attempt to redirect the management of the national forests around the park complex to more closely align with outdoor recreation interests and Park Service principles. [17]

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999