Contested Terrain
North Cascades National Park Service Complex: An Administrative History
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Part I -- 1890s to 1968

One of the most important themes in the history of the northern Cascades has been their preservation and management as a national park. Like a statue hidden within a block of stone, some have suggested, the North Cascades have been a national park waiting to be created. But the park's establishment required more than an artist's imagination and the region's spectacular scenery to succeed. From the time the first park proposals appeared in the 1890s to when a park was finally established in 1968, the North Cascades have been contested terrain. That contest has centered on how the range should be managed. Preservationists wanted the federal government to protect this mountain wilderness as a national park to preserve its scenic and scientific values for future generations. Their opponents, on the other hand, wanted the federal government to manage these mountains under more utilitarian principles in order to realize the full economic potential of their forests, minerals, and rivers. While this conflict represents a familiar theme in America's conservation history, it nevertheless helps to explain why the struggle for a park lasted for more than seventy years.

The history of the park's establishment evolved through three periods. The first was the Progressive era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, when the idea for a national park emerged during the conservation movement and was defeated as the rift between utilitarian and preservation interests grew. The next phase was the Depression and New Deal era when the National Park Service submitted the first formal proposal for a national park in the North Cascades only to see it crushed by well-organized opposition during the height of controversy revolving around the establishment of Olympic National Park (1938). The final stage of the park's establishment history came in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of modern environmentalism. This era, charged with political activism and a groundswell of public support for wilderness preservation, saw the creation of North Cascades National Park -- but only after considerable compromise among a diverse group of interests, in particular the long-standing rivalry between the Park Service and United States Forest Service. Attesting to the controversy surrounding the park's establishment, Congress ultimately created the park "complex" composed of a national park, divided into northern and southern units, and two national recreation areas. The park's existence, in the end, attests to the value Americans invested in wilderness as well as the political realities involved in its preservation.

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Last Updated: 14-Apr-1999