Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Washington's North Cascades rank as some of the country's wildest, most rugged, and beautiful mountains outside of Alaska. Their breathtaking scenery inspired the name the "American Alps," a description often used for other ranges in the United States, but one, their admirers stressed, the northern Cascades deserved without question. More importantly, perhaps, the North Cascades were considered "true wilderness." In the middle of the twentieth century, they were known mostly to mountaineers, and before that by a relative handful of explorers, miners, loggers, settlers, dam builders, and, of course, the Skagit peoples. The range's deep, glaciated valleys and jumble of precipitous, glacier-clad peaks formed a nearly impenetrable barrier to human progress. When it was officially opened in 1972, State Highway 20 was the first and only east-west road to cross the formidable country north of Stevens Pass. To this day, the isolated community of Stehekin, at the head of the fjord-like Lake Chelan, cannot be reached by road. By accident of geography, wilderness enthusiasts claimed, the North Cascades had escaped the forces that had shaped modern America.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, change did come and threatened to alter forever this magnificent country with clear cuts, mining operations, and motorized recreation. On October 2, 1968, after a lengthy and controversial struggle, Congress protected around 700,000 acres of this range, some of the nation's finest alpine wilderness, as North Cascades National Park. The political forces that led to the creation of the park can be seen in the park's physical form. It is a "park complex," composed of a national park (505,000 acres) made up of northern and southern units, and two national recreation areas. Ross Lake National Recreation Area (117,000 acres) is wedged between the park's northern and southern units. Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (62,000 acres) abuts the park's southern boundary. While there are specific differences in how these areas are managed, the park complex as a whole has the purpose of providing the American public a wealth of scenic, scientific, historic, and recreational opportunities in a wilderness environment.

The significance of North Cascades relates in large part to its mountainous geography. When the Cascade Range reaches northern Washington, its stately ridges transform into a bewildering array of uplifted and folded peaks. The mountain building process here was extremely complex, forming a series of seemingly unending peaks and troughs of deep, steep-sided valleys. These deep valleys, many of them carved out by glaciers, give the surrounding mountains an immensely dramatic relief, making them appear higher than they really are. Though not many peaks are above 9,000 feet, they rise above valley floors that are mostly under an elevation of 2,000 feet. The relief is so much greater than the higher peaks of the Sierra or Rockies, noted mountaineer Hermann Ulrichs, that it gives the North Cascades "a decidedly grander appearance." [1] The peaks of the Picket Range, with such ominous-sounding names as Challenger, Fury, and Terror, attest to this observation. Other striking topographic features of the northern Cascades are the volcanic cones of Mount Baker and Glacier Peak, more recent additions to the range, towering above it to the north and south respectively. Unlike Mount Rainier National Park, then, North Cascades National Park gains much of its significance not from a single volcano but rather from a "sea of peaks." It is this crown of jagged ridges, spires, and pinnacles that epitomizes the wilderness character of North Cascades.

The park owes its rugged topography and extreme relief to the glaciers and rivers that have deeply incised and shaped the North Cascades. More than three hundred glaciers, many of them small, remain active at the heads of valleys and make up the greatest concentration of glaciers in a national park outside of Alaska. The power of their erosive forces carved out such broad, U-shaped valleys as those of the Stehekin River and Little and Big Beaver and Thunder creeks, and created distinctive features such as hanging valleys with their cascading waterfalls. The park's two major watersheds, the Skagit and Stehekin rivers, are fed by the meltwater of glaciers and snow, rainfall, and the innumerable streams and creeks draining the mountains. The Skagit is the largest watershed in Puget Sound. This physical reality highlights the fact that the North Cascades form a striking boundary between climates; the west slope receives heavy -- and generally warm -- precipitation from the Pacific (from 84 to over 100 inches) while the east slope lies in a rain shadow (receiving about 30 inches a year).

Water, in all its various forms, is another of the park's popular and significant resources -- from the rivers and lakes clouded with glacier flour to the clear, alpine lakes and ponds (more than 200) in the park's high country. Four large bodies of water lie within the park's boundaries. Gorge, Diablo, and Ross lakes are reservoirs formed by dams on the Skagit River, and are located in Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Lake Chelan is a natural lake that extends for fifty-five miles through a narrow, glacier carved valley, rimmed by high peaks in the north that give way to lower and drier mountains in the south near Chelan. In the late 1920s, however, a hydroelectric dam at the foot of the lake raised the lake's level by twenty-one feet.

The wild country of the North Cascades is also biologically diverse. The park's two distinct climatic zones -- a wet and temperate western slope and a drier and colder eastern slope -- support a variety of flora. On the west side of the range, heavy stands of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock dominate the lowland forest. At higher elevations, pacific silver fir, mountain hemlock, Alaska yellow cedar, and subalpine fir are the most common species. On the eastern side of the range, grand fir, Douglas fir, aspen, and ponderosa pine are the dominant trees in the forests at the lower elevations, while whitebark pine and subalpine larch are the most common at the higher elevations. On either side of the mountains, a wide variety of plants and vegetation, from ferns to flowering heather, can be found. More important, perhaps from a popular perspective, are the subalpine meadows or "mountain parks" that open up past the tree line. For many visitors, they are the high country's most characteristic feature.

The park's biological diversity extends to fish and wildlife, too. Native and introduced species of fish live in the park's lakes and rivers. Among the native fish are bull trout, cutthroat trout, and burbot; and among the introduced fish are rainbow and brook trout, and kokanee and Chinook salmon. The park's variety of habitats supports nearly 340 species of wildlife. Sightings of deer, black bear, mountain goats, and various small mammals and birds are common, whereas encounters with mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, grizzly bears, and wolves tend to be far less common.

Together these features -- mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, flora, fish, and fauna -- compose North Cascades National Park's principal natural resources. They are also the source for the popular perception of the park's quality as a "true wilderness" in a modern age and within such close proximity to the Puget Sound's metropolitan corridor. This focus on the park's wilderness resources has tended to obscure the human story of the range's past. The park's cultural resources are diverse. The prehistory of the North Cascades, for example, reveals that perhaps within the last 5,000 years native people used the resources of the range on a seasonal and permanent basis. Similarly, studies suggest that the historic tribes of northwestern Washington, such as the Upper Skagit, Chilliwack, Lower Thompson, and Chelan, also exploited mountain resources traveling through the range's valleys and passes. In this respect, the North Cascades were thus not the unknown, impervious mountain range many whites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries believed.

Evidence of Anglo American interaction with this rough landscape can be seen in the historic structures and sites that speak to early exploration, mining, homesteading, tourism, federal land management, and hydroelectric power development. Most of the activities associated with these structures were arduous undertakings. The range's extreme topography confined them to the major river valleys; they were transient in nature, and most left only reminders of their passing in silent mining operations and aging log cabins. However, some pursuits left a more permanent mark on the region, such as the Stehekin community at the head of Lake Chelan and the dams erected by Seattle City Light on the Skagit River. The wilderness of the North Cascades has not been an island in the stream of history, experiencing the occasional floods of interest. Here history has been, like the mountains, more a question of scale and perspective than magnitude.


This administrative history has several purposes: to provide a summary of the park's thirty year development, to present a synthesis of the many issues that have concerned park managers from 1968 to the present, and to offer an analysis of North Cascades and its place within the history of the national park system and how the politics of its establishment and its wilderness mission distinguish it from other national parks. This history is organized both chronologically and topically. The report is divided into three parts corresponding to three distinct eras in the park complex's history. In some cases, as with the discussion of the High Ross Dam controversy, this approach has been modified to provide better coverage of a topic. Within these sections, chapters address such recurring topics as administration, development, research and resource management, concessions management, hydropower issues, wilderness management, and land protection. The first part addresses the establishment of North Cascades as a national park; the park movement spanned more than seventy years, and the compromises necessary to preserve North Cascades bear significantly upon the park's management.

The second and third parts reflect distinct eras of planning, and are divided into the park's first ten years and next twenty years. These sections essentially provide the context for the birth and growth of a relatively young national park and provide readers with a thematic framework with which to think of the park's management history. The park complex's first decade of administration can be characterized by the Park Service's attempts to carry out the legislative mandates of the North Cascades Act, develop the new park's management on a strong foundation of research, advance a strong commitment to wilderness preservation, and contend with the often contradictory aspects of traditional park management. The last twenty years of management can be characterized by the Park Service's attempts to come to terms with the park's past as well as its future. On the one hand, the agency addressed long-standing management problems in its attempts to resolve hydropower issues and disputes over land acquisition and resource use in Stehekin. And on the other, the agency demonstrated its desire to place wilderness foremost in present and future management decisions with the creation of a wilderness district. At the same time, it sought ways to improve visitor services, for example, with the construction of a visitor center. This situation revealed one of the central themes of the park's management. Most visitors never strayed far from their cars, and the agency needed a facility to educate the public about the wilderness few would see.


An administrative history cannot be written without the support of many people, ranging from park staff to librarians. I have many people to thank, and at the risk of overlooking some, I will attempt to mention them all. First, thanks go to Gretchen Luxenberg and Stephanie Toothman who started this project a number of years ago. In the late 1980s, Stephanie and Gretchen began the research for this project. Their efforts were part of a larger cultural resource initiative directed at parks in the Northwest; they were also part of the planning effort undertaken by Superintendent John Reynolds in nearly every facet of management for North Cascades. Stephanie and Gretchen, then the regional and research historians, respectively, in the National Park Service's Pacific Northwest Regional Office [2] in Seattle, Washington, completed most of the archival research. However, funding problems and time constraints caused the project to be shelved. Meanwhile, Gretchen, who had produced several important studies on North Cascades, including the park's historic resource study, completed the park's archives project. The project created a discrete collection of documentary materials pertinent to the park's administration. In the process, she added still more material to the bulging files on the park's administrative history in the Seattle office. Fortunately, funding became available to complete the project beginning in 1995. And it was around that time that Stephanie and Gretchen passed the responsibility to me. I had already perused the North Cascades files while looking for a topic for my dissertation and gladly accepted the task. After some minor interruptions during the Park Service's reorganization in 1996, I was able to complete the study.

The project would not have been completed without the assistance of park staff, those who still work for the park and those who have moved on. I would like to thank all of the former superintendents who gave me their insights about the park -- Roger Contor, Lowell White, and John Reynolds. In addition to giving me his own insights, the current superintendent, Bill Paleck, read every word of the report, a feat few accomplish. Park staffers answered my questions with a measure of humor and professionalism. I owe special debts to Bruce Freet, chief of the park's resource management program, for helping to keep the project alive, and to Dan Allen, resource management specialist, for answering my questions about nearly every aspect of the program. As one of the "senior" members of the park's staff, Dan may have had this privilege forced upon him. Other members of the park's staff, Gerry Cook, Jesse Kennedy, Bob Mierendorf, Leigh Smith, Reed Glesne, Phil Campbell, Bob Kuntz, and Tim Manns, among others, were all helpful. I am equally indebted to Jon Jarvis, the park's first chief of resource management, and Bob Wasem, the park's first biologist, who reviewed the document and helped me make the report stronger and more accurate. Likewise, Barry Mackintosh, the Park Service's bureau historian, gave the document his usual close reading and insightful comments. Frank Norris, Park Service historian in Anchorage, Alaska, and Doug Dodd, a PhD candidate in history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, also gave sections of the document a close reading and made the text more fluid. I am also indebted to the librarians in our Seattle office and especially at the manuscripts division at the University of Washington, where much of this research was accomplished. I would like to express my appreciation as well to the staff of the cultural resources division who have supported me over the years. Finally, I extend my gratitude to my wife, Rebekah, and my daughter, Arendje, who have gone car camping with me in the park. I will always have fond memories of my eighteen-month-old daughter sleeping quietly in our tent at Newhalem Creek Campground on her first camping trip. While many have helped me with this project, I am ultimately responsible for its content.


In closing, there should be some mention of my approach to the research and writing of this study. The nature of doing "recent" history has changed markedly over the years. The advent of electronic mail, for example, has greatly reduced the amount of written material available to historians. For this reason, I have relied on conversations and interviews with current and former park staff as well as published reports to fill in the gaps in the historical narrative. Nevertheless, the narrative trajectory collapses the closer one moves to the present, and I tried to compensate for this by organizing the park's history into eras. All of this is not to say that there are no good documentary source materials relating to North Cascades. The history of the park's establishment and its early management have drawn extensively on the collections of Henry M. Jackson, Warren G. Magnuson, Lloyd Meeds, the North Cascades Conservation Council, and other politicians and environmental groups who have figured prominently in the fight for and management of the national park. There remains, I believe, more to be done with the environmental movement and the preservation of landscapes like North Cascades. The Kennedy-Johnson era was a fruitful one for environmental legislation, and parks such as North Cascades were part of the growing concern for wilderness preservation expressed by the postwar generation.

Furthermore, North Cascades is a relatively young park compared to the other Washington parks of Rainier and Olympic, but its issues are as complex as the bureaucratic name "Park Service Complex" implies. And it was not long before I realized what Stephanie and Gretchen faced when they started the project. There are really three separate parks, often with their own separate issues, under one administration. While they all shared the common bond of legislation and geography, the park and two recreation areas could have had their own separate histories. And at times, it felt as though I was writing three different studies. This is especially true for Lake Chelan NRA. I have often thought that if North Cascades were a ship, it would list toward Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan. The volume of documents generated over its management alone supports this statement and warrants a history focused on events in Stehekin, particularly regarding land policies and resource consumption. But Stehekin is not alone in generating controversy. Ross Lake NRA has seen its own share of high profile issues surrounding the hydroelectric power facilities owned by Seattle City Light. Here, too, a separate study would document in greater detail the relationship between the Park Service and City Light than I have been able to in this report. North Cascades National Park proper could also have its own management history written, especially about the evolution of wilderness management in such a dramatic yet fragile setting. My approach, however, was to write about the park complex as it is administered by the National Park Service. I have attempted to place its management issues within the larger context of the park complex. It is as a "complex," not as a park or recreation areas, that North Cascades has been administered.

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999