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Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating The North Cascades National Park

Author : Lauren Danner
Published : 2017-09-15

In Crown Jewel Wilderness, environmental historian Lauren Danner masterfully tells the story of the decades of political wrangling over the North Cascades. She examines North Cascades history in the context of national debates about what agency should be the primary provider of outdoor recreation – the Forest Service or the National Park Service – what areas should be national park as opposed to national forest, and who should manage wilderness in places like the North Cascades.

Conservationists were skeptical that either agency would consider wilderness preservation a priority. The Park Service was, they thought, too focused on developing the national parks for mass recreation, and the Forest Service was pursuing a multiple use policy focused especially, in the North Cascade region, on logging.         

The idea for a national park in the North Cascades of Washington state first appeared in 1892 but went nowhere. In October 1968, North Cascades National Park Complex was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The seventy-six years between these dates saw proposals for a national park in this spectacular mountain region emerge in 1906, 1916, 1935, 1940 and in the 1950s. Also during this period, the idea that parts of the public domain should be preserved as wilderness emerged, gained strength, and led to the Wilderness Act of 1964. This book traces the complex interplay of campaigns for wilderness and for a national park in the North Cascades.

Conservationists ultimately concluded the Park Service held the most promise to protect wilderness in the North Cascades. They sought a wilderness park because, in their view, “Wild places had intrinsic, aesthetic, and noneconomic value. . .and should be preserved in part because a rich nation ought to be able to afford to preserve some wild remnants of its past before they disappeared forever.” The North Cascades mountains had repulsed development with their deep winter snows and extremely rugged terrain; millions of acres of rock and ice and even forested lowland valleys remained wild in the mid-twentieth century.

With clarity and insight, Danner tells a very complex story of conservation politics. In the 1950s and ‘60s leading up to the 1968 legislation, the politics were very involved, but she sorts out the details without getting so deep into the policy arguments that she loses all but policy wonks. Prominent players in the story of this period are members of the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C), David Brower of the Sierra Club, various Washington politicians but especially Senator Henry M. Jackson, Washington Governor Dan Evans, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Danner describes how the local, regional, and national natural resource politics played out in the North Cascades.

This book is not just a political history of the struggle for protection of the North Cascades. It is a story of how much people cared about this place, and how dedicated they were to its protection from mining, logging, and development that would mar its exceptional beauty and wildness. Phil and Laura Zalesky and Polly Dyer, backpacking through Suiattle and Cloudy Pass north of Glacier Peak, spotted a helicopter in the vicinity of what they learned was a Kennecott Copper Company claim. The company, it turned out, had plans for a huge open pit mine in one of the most beautiful places in the North Cascades wilderness.  Dyer and the Zaleskys along with Pat Goldsworthy, Harvey Manning, and other N3C leaders marshalled all their resources and energy to defeat the mine, which they ultimately did, a David and Goliath story well told by Danner and just one episode in the long struggle that finally led to the North Cascades National Park Complex and protection for millions of acres of wilderness.

The outcome of the long effort was unique, as Danner explains.

The North Cascades bill produced something unique in America’s system of scenic and wilderness preservation: a complex, politically crafted to satisfy incompatible interests. In a sense, the complex embodied the principles of multiple-use. Different portions of the North Cascades had been deemed to have diverse recreational values, and land use designations (national park, wilderness, national forest, national recreation area) had been applied to address those. Managing these diverse units as an integrated whole presented challenges, which the legislation required the Park and Forest services to address within two years with coordinated management plans. The bill stipulated the Park Service also had to recommend wilderness areas within the new park.

The park and forest services fought for decades over who could and should manage North Cascades wilderness. The North Cascades National Park bill addressed this, including a vast wilderness administered by the Forest Service to the east of the park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area. But this is not the end of the story.

Twenty years passed before Congress designated wilderness in the park. Additional wilderness in the surrounding national forests was achieved in 1984. Danner devotes the two concluding chapters of the book to these and other parts of the story that followed creation of the park complex. She explains that, “In the North Cascades, the Park Service moved away from its historic emphasis on public access and recreational development, and the Forest Service moved toward treating recreation and wilderness as national forest uses equal to timber, mining, and grazing.” The dominant land use value in the North Cascades became wilderness and “allowed the wilderness character of this crown jewel national park to prevail.”

The conservation story in the North Cascades is not over, and Danner identifies two important elements of the future of the place. “The North Cascades and those who live and work there today still face complicated, daunting issues, now more concerned with ecological integrity than recreational access. Two of the biggest are climate change and wildlife restoration.” Glaciers are melting, species are at risk as a changing climate shrinks their habitat, and an argument rages about restoring a viable grizzly bear population to these mountains. At the same time, “concepts of wilderness, scenic preservation, and public access have shifted.” While Danner concludes this excellent book on a celebratory note – “The jaw-dropping magnificent North Cascades endure as one of the large, wildest tracts in the continental United States, a crown jewel wilderness to treasure forever.” – she indicates that to “treasure” such a place “forever” will not happen without hard work and inspiration like that we find in the story she tells.

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I have not read the book, but it appears to be a useful review of the political history of the creation of the North Cascades National Park complex. However, it sounds like the author paints an undeservedly rosy picture of the U.S. Forest Service. For example, the author is quoted as writing, 

"the Forest Service moved toward treating recreation and wilderness as national forest uses equal to timber, mining, and grazing."

Unfortunately, this is true only to the extent that the agency has been forced, against its vehement opposition, to accept the congressional designation of wilderness areas. Characteristically, though, national forest wilderness is not as well protected as National Park System wilderness.

Most important, by far the top priority for the agency remains logging, mining, livestock grazing, drilling, and other resource extraction. The agency has gotten better at spinning happy stories of "sustainable management," but on the ground the destruction is worse than ever.

So-called "wildlife restoration" is a fraud; it is merely logging as usual, with a nice-sounding label. As for "ecological integrity," the Forest Service has always ignored climate change, but now it is in outright climate denial. For example, the term "climate change" appears just 4 times in the agency's FY 2018 budget justifications (p. 10).

These misguided priorities are clear from the Forest Service budget:

- Only about 16 percent of the Forest Service budget goes to recreation and wilderness, versus 84 percent for programs that directly or indirectly promote resource exploitation.

- More than 50 percent of the agency's budget goes to the oxymoronically named category, "wildland fire management," most of which is wasted on ineffective, dangerous, and ecologically destructive "fuel reduction" and fire suppression programs.

- Despite these upside-down budget numbers, almost half of the jobs generated by Forest Service operations are in "recreation, wildlife, visitor use," all of which are degraded by resource extraction and development.

The reason North Cascades survives is because it is protected as a part of the National Park System, which does not allow resource exploitation and development. But the park is not large enough and, outside wilderness areas, adjacent national forest lands are threatened by logging and other resource extraction. Conservationists are advocating the expansion of the park to protect these areas.

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