President Johnson signs bill creating North Cascades National Park on October 2, 1968.

  • By Elise Fogel
  • Posted 3/29/2011
  • Essay 9789
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On October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) signs the bill creating the 504,000-acre North Cascades National Park. Debates about whether or not to create a national park, and what its boundaries should be, have raged for decades. With more than 300 glaciers (double the number in the rest of the continental United States), large stands of old growth forest, and dozens of sharp peaks, the swath of land from roughly Lake Chelan to the Canadian border is protected by the new law from logging and excessive recreational activities. In 1988, 93 percent of the land within the park complex will become the Stephen Mather Wilderness Area and subject to even stricter rules for use. Over ensuing years, conservationists will continue efforts to expand the boundaries of the park. As of 2011, the North Cascades National Park Service Complex consists of 684,237 acres, including the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and several wilderness areas: Alpine Lakes, Pasayten, William O. Douglas, Norse Peak, Boulder River, Chelan-Sawtooth, Henry M. Jackson, Mt. Baker, Noisy-Diobsud, Tatoosh, Clearwater, Glacier View, Indian Heaven, and Trapper Creek.

A Brief History of the Land

The land that we now call the North Cascades became part of the public domain in 1846 when the United States claimed the Oregon Territory. In 1905 it was transferred to the Department of Agriculture as part of the National Forest System. The first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872 to preserve scenic beauty; in contrast, the National Forest System sought to combine recreation with economic uses such as logging. In 1906 and again in 1917, local conservation groups called for establishing a North Cascades National Park but were defeated by strong economic-interest groups. In 1916 Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) supported a North Cascades National Park in a serialized travel piece in Cosmopolitan magazine titled "Tenting To-Night," which brought national attention to the area.

In 1931, responding to mounting pressure from conservationists, the Forest Service established the Whatcom Primitive Area. By 1937, the myriad competing interests led President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) to appoint a study team for the North Cascades, which ultimately determined that the area would "outrank in its scenic, recreational and wildlife values any existing national park and any other possibility for such a park in the United States" (Evans). However, local economic interests again prevented the creation of a park; the Forest Service continued managing the land, and as part of its management, continued to allow logging.

North Cascades Conservation Council

In 1957 many members of the local conservation community, including Patrick Goldsworthy (1919-2013) and Polly Dyer (1920-2016), were passionate about the North Cascades and  unhappy with Forest Service management. They founded the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C), modeled after the Olympic Park Associates, to lobby for conservation in the North Cascades. The volunteer-based organization was careful to choose members who were knowledgeable about the Cascades, and always checked the backgrounds of potential members for fear they would lose control to the logging interests. They took aim at the regional Forest Service office, which naively thought it could easily dismiss a small group of grassroots conservationists.

After years of pressure from local conservation interest groups, including the N3C, the Forest Service created the Glacier Peak Wilderness area in 1960. Logging was not allowed on these 458,505 acres, but the area was only about half the size desired by the N3C, and its borders were drawn around valleys to keep heavily forested areas free for logging. After a year of trying to expand the boundaries of the wilderness area, the N3C decided in 1961 to go for a full-fledged national park, a controversial idea that had been bandied about for decades.

Members of the N3C conducted a study of the North Cascades, meant to guide future management of the land. In 1963, they released a report that would act as a draft for the eventual park bill, in which they proposed that the Park Service could do a better job than the Forest Service of protecting the scenic value of the land by preventing logging and mining. They proposed an area for the park totaling 1,308,186 acres. The N3C drafted a bill that included transferring land from the Forest Service and purchasing additional land from private interests. They grudgingly accepted the North Cascades Highway, a 76-mile road connecting Marblemount with Mazama that was then under construction. Acknowledging the economic difficulties that local communities would face with the loss of logging, their plan included compensatory payments to counties from the federal government for a limited time. Studies indicated that the logging economy would eventually be replaced by the tourist economy, which was expected to flourish and draw an estimated 2.5 million tourists each year by 1980.

Government Proposal

The federal government began its own study of the North Cascades in 1963, conducted jointly by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. Part of the study involved public hearings in the Northwest, during which the planners received hundreds of comments and letters from constituents. People who lived in or near the North Cascades tended to not want changes in how the land was managed, and people in Seattle tended to want increased protection. The final report was published in October 1965, and included a recommendation for a 700,000-acre North Cascades National Park, quite a bit smaller than the park proposed by the N3C. Thus began the intense back-and-forth among all sides of the debate, which further whittled away the acreage of the proposed park.

On March 20, 1967, Senators Henry M. Jackson  (1912-1983) and Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) introduced Senate Bill 1321, which proposed establishing 570,000 acres as the North Cascades National Park, adjacent to the Ross Lake National Recreation area of 100,000 acres. The bill had two stated objectives:

"To manage and develop facilities in such a manner as to make the significant recreation resource available for more concentrated use while not damaging the inherent scenic and scientific values or lowering the quality of the visitor’s experience; to manage the core of the Picket Range and Eldorado Peaks areas as wilderness for trail access only" (Proposal, p. 4).

The park was to be in two sections, with a major wilderness at each core. To the north, the Picket Range would be the center. The south unit would encircle the Eldorado Peaks and Stehekin Valley.

Debate Rages

With a bill officially proposed, many groups, such as the N3C and the Sierra Club, began suggesting amendments. The N3C wanted statutory wilderness boundaries established within the park immediately, as well as a few other boundary changes, mostly to enlarge the park's area. Others, such as Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), supported the park, but wanted to increase recreational areas. On the other side were interest groups opposed to a park of any size, including hunters, recreation enthusiasts, and loggers who made their living off the land. Many advocates for both sides of the debate traveled to Washington, D.C., for a public hearing on April 24 and 25, 1967.

Outdoors Unlimited, Inc., representing a membership devoted to such outdoor recreations as fishing, skiing, hunting, camping, and "scenic driving," was a fierce opponent. At the hearing, William F. Lenihan, general counsel of the group, said:

"A perusal of the proposed development plans for the National Park and recreation area amply demonstrates to me that the proposed park is not one designed for people ... . The North Cascades has been referred to as the American Alps. If these are the American Alps, then let’s develop them like the European Alps so all the people can enjoy them" (April 1967 Hearings, p. 198).

Many who opposed the park perceived a class difference between their ranks and those who supported the park. While never proven, the allegation  that conservationists were all wealthy city dwellers influenced many of the arguments against creating the park. Marion Newkirk, representing the Washington State Grange, said:

"We believe that all real wealth, food, clothing, and shelter comes from the soil in its original form, and that setting aside vast areas for single or very limited use takes away a large percentage of the real wealth of our country.

"At first we were amazed at the lack of concern for the welfare of the whole country exhibited by the proponents of the new North Cascades Park, but we are now convinced that they are completely selfish in their desire to set up another vast area as a private club for their own personal enjoyment.

"Incidentally, I wonder where these hardy exponents of the wild existence obtained the necessary funds to pursue their hobby. I suspect that most of them inherited it from ancestors who originally wrested it from the soil and which opportunity they now want to deny others.

"One of the key phrases of the park proponents is that they want to preserve all of this area for future generations. The one constant thing about nature is constant change. In a very short period of time nature changes the entire completion of the renewable resources and one earth tremor of a few seconds duration can alter the entire landscape more than any operation of man could do in many years. However, by some strange alchemy in the minds of the preservationists, this alteration by nature is a thing of awe-inspiring beauty, while any man-made change is a vile depredation of nature" (April 1967 Hearings, p. 202).

At a May 27, 1967, public hearing in Mount Vernon, William O. Pearson, mayor of Sedro Woolley, said:

"We resent the implications that we and your foresters are despoilers of nature. We resent the interference of the Sierra Club in its attempts to force us to change our mode of living, in its attempts to curtail our economic and recreational activities. We resent the attitude that we must have a large national park and we will have to learn to live with it. We resent the fact that the wishes of the people of this area are being ground beneath the heels of people who have little personal knowledge of the area, people who help extend the tentacles of mushrooming cities but deny us the pleasure and use of our own hinterland ... we resent the theory that our streams should be allowed to run wild and uncontrolled and flood our lowlands when man’s ingenuity can control the flood level" (May 1967 Hearings, p. 26).

The N3C recruited droves of conservationists to speak in favor of the park. The rooms were filled past capacity with testifiers and observers. Patrick Goldsworthy, N3C president, presented a list of 13 different valleys the N3C thought ought to be included in the park and reflected on a recent helicopter ride through the area:

"Twelve years of hiking throughout the Cascades had convinced me of the superlative scenic quality of this region. This brief two-hour aerial view, however, introduced me to a scenic magnitude that strengthened my conviction, if that were possible, that this is unquestionably land of national park caliber. I hasten to add, lest you think I am about to advocate helicopters in the park, that this view was too hurried, too cut off to ever substitute for my years of intimate terrestrial association with the sounds, smells, and small details by which one really gets to know the country" (May 1967 Hearings, p. 66).

Goldsworthy also pointed out that individuals who are initially opposed to new designations usually grow to support them later and that economic issues are usually resolved as well.

Eventually, after all the public hearings, the pros were deemed to outweigh the cons, and on October 2, 1968, President Lynden Johnson signed the park into law. The N3C and cohorts celebrated, but their efforts were far from over.

Protecting the Park

Even after the park was established, conservationists kept pushing for expansion and further protection of park lands. Several dam sites had been successfully excluded from the park boundaries due to Seattle City Light lobbying, and City Light tried to move ahead with building dams in the 1970s and 1980s. The N3C worked tirelessly to defeat a dam at Thunder Creek, as well as the raising of Ross Dam, which would have flooded stands of Douglas fir trees in Big Beaver Creek and into Canada. An international partnership between the N3C and Run Out Skagit Spoilers (ROSS), a Canadian conservation group, successfully defeated that proposal in 1983.

Further legislation was passed to enforce stricter conservation measures on areas within the North Cascades complex. On July 12, 1976, President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) signed the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Act, which protected 305,400 acres of land. On July 3, 1984, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) signed the Washington Wilderness Act, adding 1,031,758 acres to the wilderness system. On November 16, 1988, President Reagan signed the Washington Parks Wilderness Act, declaring 93 percent of North Cascades National Park Complex a wilderness, as well as 95 percent of Olympic National Park, and 97 percent of Mount Rainier National Park.

The N3C helped found the American Alps Legacy Project, an organization devoted to completing its original vision for the park by expanding the boundaries and increasing protection. Compromise was necessary for political reasons, to satisfy logging interests and recreationists.

As of 2011, the park complex is composed of a national park (505,000 acres) made up of northern and southern units; Ross Lake National Recreation Area (117,000 acres between the two units); and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (62,000 acres at the southern boarder of the park). Members of the N3C and the American Alps Legacy Project continue to push for expanded boundaries. 


Harvey Manning, Wilderness Alps: Conservation and Conflict in Washington’s North Cascades (Bellingham: Northwest Wild Books, 2007); Various letters and documents, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-11, Box 20, Special Collections, University of Washington (UW) Libraries, Seattle, Washington;  Prospectus for A North Cascades National Park ed by J. Michael McCloskey (Seattle: North Cascades Conservation Council, 1963); "Public Utilities Committee -- City Light Hearing No. 4 on Environment Minutes," April 8, 1970, Box 1, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-002, Special Collections, UW Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Brock Evans, "Showdown for the Wilderness Alps of Washington’s North Cascades," April 1968, Sierra Club, Box 20, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-11, Special Collections, UW Libraries; "Trails and Roads in the North Cascades -- Preliminary Report," February 1969, Box 18, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-11, Special Collections, UW Libraries; J. Michael McCloskey, "Northwest Conservation Brief," November 15, 1963, Number 7,  "Hearings before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs United States Senate, Ninetieth Congress, First Session on S. 1321,"April 24 and 25, 1967, Box 10, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-11, Special Collections, UW Libraries; "Hearing before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Mount Vernon WA," May 27, 1967, Box 10, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-11, Special Collections, UW Libraries; U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, "North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area: A Proposal," March 1967, Box 9, North Cascades Conservation Council Records, 1732-11, Special Collections, UW Libraries; Lynda Mapes, "No Stehekin Swap: Land Will Be Bought," The Seattle Times, February 18, 2000, (; "Brief History of the North Cascades National Park," American Alps Legacy Project website accessed March 10, 2011 (;  Eric Pryne, "A New Vision for North Cascades -- Environmentalists’ Concepts Would Transform Boundaries," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1993, (; David Louter, "North Cascades National Park: Contested Terrain: An Administrative History," Seattle: National Park Service, 1998 (; Lynda Mapes, " ‘Parents’ of North Cascades Park Want It To Grow, " The Seattle Times, May 20, 2009; "North Cascades National Park Complex – History & Culture," National Park Service website accessed March 28, 2011 (; R. Mierendorf and J. Kennedy, "A Cascade Pass Chronology," 2009, Washington State Magazine website accessed March 28, 2011 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "President Johnson Signs Bill Creating North Cascades National Park on October 2, 1968," (by Alan J. Stein), and "Polly Dyer" (by Paula Becker), (accessed March 28, 2011).

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