by Lauren Danner, author of Crown Jewel Wilderness
In late September 2003, I pulled into the Cascade Pass trailhead parking lot and leaned back to stretch. I’d been on the road for nearly five hours, having left my home in Olympia at 4:00 a.m. and gotten stuck in freshman orientation-day traffic on I-5 in Seattle. Now, I was eager to hike. A cirque of gray mountains sparkled outside under an azure autumn sky, early snow dusting the summits and streaks of red huckleberry slashing down the slopes. Surely this was the most beautiful trailhead in the national park system.
I popped the trunk and pulled out my backpack, then reached for my boots. “No. No! NONONONONO!” I couldn’t believe it. In the early morning darkness at home, I’d grabbed my husband’s hiking boots instead of mine. Same model, different size. After lobbing a few well-chosen expletives at the impassive peaks, which echoed back mockingly, I started rooting through the car, looking for tissues, towels, anything with which I could stuff the boots.
I first became interested in the North Cascades while working on my doctoral dissertation. The story of how a handful of conservationists banded together after becoming concerned about increased logging in the national forests of the Cascade Range had all the hallmarks of a juicy political tale. More than a decade of wrangling over how to manage the North Cascades eventually involved two presidents, two Washington governors, many members of Congress, state and federal agency officials, resource industry representatives, and thousands of citizens. It was fascinating. And no one had written a book about it. Multiple books about Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks jostled for bookshelf space, but the North Cascades section was surprisingly sparse.
One of my academic advisors suggested that I write the history of North Cascades National Park. I wasn’t sure. “You know this story,” he said. “You’re a historian. Tell it.”
So in 2001, I started researching in depth. Every day I’d drive from Olympia to Seattle, a trip that back then took about an hour. I’d plant myself at a table in the manuscripts and special collections division at the University of Washington or the National Archives branch on Sand Point Way. I made a trip to Berkeley to look at the Sierra Club records. I went to Mount Rainier National Park’s archives, then housed in a trailer hidden in the woods above Ashford. I went to the National Archives in Washington, DC, and College Park, MD. Closer to home, I trawled through the Washington State Archives records in Olympia. I combed through box after box after box of records: of conservationists and congressmen, of the Forest Service and the National Park Service, of state officials and agencies.
As I filled in the many disparate pieces of North Cascades history, I reached out to people who had been involved. Many of them still lived in the Northwest and willingly shared their experiences and, in some cases, their records — long stored in boxes and piled in a basement or cupboard. I interviewed five conservationists and two former Forest Service staff, and although their perspectives on managing public lands differed, they shared an abiding love for wild places, especially the North Cascades.
Slowly, slowly, a complex and compelling story emerged. As Washington’s population increased during World War II and after — it gained more people than any state except California — many of the new residents took advantage of good jobs, disposable income, and leisure time, and headed to their national forests to camp, hike, and play. Increasingly, though, these recreationists arrived to find clearcuts, slash piles, and mud. They began pressuring the Forest Service, which managed much of the northern Cascades as a working forest, to set aside some areas for scenery and wilderness recreation.
The agency was in a hard place. On the one hand, it had been a reliable provider of recreation land for more than 50 years, constructing trails, roads, and campsites for outdoors enthusiasts. On the other hand, demand for national forest timber was rising, in part because suburbs were springing up to accommodate new residents. Conservationists leveraged this dissonance, eventually forming the North Cascades Conservation Council, an organization dedicated to preserving wilderness in the region, and working closely with the Sierra Club to promote the issue in Washington state and nationally. And they succeeded. After nearly 15 years, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed North Cascades National Park into law on October 2, 1968.
I was two years into my research before I ever stepped foot in the North Cascades. I still thought about the landscape in black and white, the colors of typescript on a page and midcentury photographs hidden in archival folders. A visit to the park, to see it in color, was long overdue. So it was I found myself in the North Cascades with the wrong boots one afternoon in late September 2003. But I’d just driven five hours to get some on-the-ground experience in the North Cascades, and there was no way I was turning back.
I stuffed my husband’s boots with tissues and newspaper and hiked to Cascade Pass, gazing in awe at the mountains stretching toward every horizon. My feet felt okay, so I kept climbing partway up Sahale Arm, to even better views. Clouds drifted in, rolling up and over the pass from the Cascade River valley. I longed to keep hiking toward the Stehekin River, but neither my feet nor my schedule allowed it. Reluctantly, I headed back to the car.
I finished a draft of the book in late 2003, about the same time I took a position at the state historical society. That gig kept me more than busy for the next several years, and the manuscript languished in a drawer. Then, at the end of 2007, everything turned upside down. My first mammogram revealed a tumor. Within three months, I was sitting in an infusion lab, healing from two surgeries and watching revoltingly orange chemotherapy drip through a tube into my veins. Six weeks of radiation followed. By the time it was all over, a year after diagnosis, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Once again, I set the manuscript aside.
The North Cascades lingered at the back of my brain, though. And after another six long years, I finally got back to it, catching up with recent environmental history and conducting more research. All that time away, it turned out, had an unexpected benefit. When I returned to the project, I was able to comprehend the North Cascades as part of a bigger story: of midcentury conservation activism, of regional growth after World War II, of changing attitudes about wilderness. I completely rewrote the manuscript. It is a book of which I am extremely proud.
And after many years of research and many hikes in the North Cascades, I am enthralled by this singular part of the world and its significance in environmental history. Unique among national parks, the North Cascades is a complex, a patchwork quilt of national park, national recreation areas, and statutory wilderness that embodies the political compromise reached to protect it. These land classifications reflect diverse and changing attitudes toward our public lands and demonstrate that innovative solutions to sticky land use problems are possible. At 50 years old, North Cascades National Park is both a natural and political landscape, one that invites us to revel in its beauty while understanding that we must be vigilant if we are to safeguard its wildness.
Lauren Danner is the author of Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park (Washington State University Press, 2017). When she’s not hiking in Washington’s national parks, Danner writes about outdoor recreation, public lands, and environmental history from her home in Olympia. Connect at laurendanner.com.