Happy Birthday North Cascades National Park Complex!

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, a sprawling reserve that includes North Cascades National Park and the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. North Cascades Institute celebrates this milestone in the ongoing story of these mountains, and salutes the many people who, over the past century, have championed their protection, appreciation and stewardship.

Heinrich Berann NPS

The North Cascades were a challenging landscape to protect, in part because of their complexity, ruggedness and remoteness. They were “too big to fit handily into an urban imagination,” wrote Harvey Manning in his history of conservation in the North Cascades,  Wilderness Alps:

A Puget Sounder of the genteel class, which invented and fostered the notion of national parks, could wrap his mind around the compact uplift of the Olympic Mountains and the grand unity of Mount Rainier, but not until far into the twentieth century did the genteel mind expand sufficiently to embrace the thirteen thousand-odd square miles of America’s “wilderness alps,” extending north from Stevens Pass to Canada, and nearly from saltwater to sagebrush.

Besides, with names like Forbidden, Torment and Despair, these mountains suffered a public perception problem, or, in contemporary parlance, “branding issues.”
One of the cultural shifts that began to change public opinions of the worthiness of lasting protection for the North Cascades was the rise of “wilderness thinking” – the intrinsic value and integrity of wild nature. In the face of a national religion of progress, resource extraction and industrialism, a few brave voices called out for deeper consideration of how we think of and care for the non-human world. Early visionaries like John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson helped to develop an eco-centric American land ethic, and the seeds they planted later bloomed into the poetry of Gary Snyder, the activism of David Brower and the Wilderness Act of 1964.


When President Johnson signed the North Cascades Act on October 2, 1968, flanked by Senator Henry M. Jackson, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and members of the North Cascades Conservation Council, he did more than create new administrative borders around a landscape. He legitimized the passionate arguments made by those speaking a word for wilderness. North Cascades National Park is special in that it was created and is maintained primarily for the benefit of untamed nature.

North Cascades National Park is the wild heart of 7 million acres of protected public lands that span an international border, national forests, recreational area, and provincial park. The overlying Stephen Mather Wilderness forms “the core of one of the wildest, largest and least altered ecosystems remaining in North America,” according to the National Park Service.
Representing more than a beautiful landscape rimmed by political borders, North Cascades National Park is the expression of a culture that honors something more-than-human, that makes room for other creatures and creates space for ancient processes of the planet to continue their quiet work unhindered. The park is a living monument to the diverse community of environmentalists, mountain climbers, business owners, politicians and nature lovers who struggled to preserve this place, and to those who work to better understand and protect its wilderness today.

The efforts to sustain the vision of a North Cascadian land ethic continues to this day. North Cascades Institute salutes those who continue to speak and care for the mountains. Here at the Institute, our work is connecting people to the wonders of these mountains while reveling in the details of this particular place. Also vital are the mountaineers, boaters, backpackers, day hikers, birders and campers who enjoy it today, “taking only pictures, leaving only footprints.” It is up to an engaged citizenry to voice support for public lands and to continue our proud heritage of speaking up for the forces of nature that don’t have a vote. It is up to us to face the challenges of climate change head-on so that the glaciers of the North Cascades, the Skagit, Sauk, Cascade, Stehekin and Methow rivers and countless creeks and waterfalls are given the opportunity to continue their slow and vital work.

As we celebrate the birthday of North Cascades National Park Complex, we look forward to fostering ever-increasing appreciation and understanding of this singularly special landscape, from the depths of Lake Chelan to the summit of Hozomeen. Working together, we can nurture this intimacy, celebrating these stony spires, forested valleys and cascading creeks and passing them on to our children.

— Christian Martin

Read a profile of Polly Dyer, one of the leading citizen activists who led the campaign to create North Cascades National Park, on our blog at blog.ncascades.org.

Check out local historian Lauren Danner's new bookCrown Jewel Wilderness on the creation of the park  at laurendanner.com.