The North Cascades--vision and compromise: Taking Bearings (The Classroom) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #2
What vision and compromises shaped the North Cascades? A conservation tale in two parts.
A few prefatory words
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This week's feature is The Classroom, which means this one is a bit longer, a bit more "teacherly" than future issues might be. (You've now been warned!) Although I hope each issue informs you some, this time is a heavy history lesson. I can't help myself.
The Classroom: The North Cascades--vision and compromise
North Cascades National Park in Washington State stands out for its ruggedness and beauty. Its lack of easy accessibility by car keeps it wilder than many parks where traffic jams crowd tourists’ motorhomes, SUVs, and Teslas. The park’s historical management—and the compromises entailed in it—makes this area useful for considering the entwined unfolding of history and democracy.
In other words, it’s right up my alley (and just up the highway from my home)b.
Chapter 1. Bob Marshall and a Roadless Vision
The North Cascades are breathtaking. Steep slopes with crags and cliffs hanging everywhere. Glaciers clinging in bowls near jagged ridgelines. Insistent rivers pushing downward toward the Salish Sea. Spend any time with the North Cascades and you’re likely to be moved.
Bob Marshall was.
A forester by training and socialist by conviction, Robert Marshall (1901-1939) helped make wilderness a public political cause and a policy option in the Forest Service. And the North Cascades drew his attention at a key moment.
In 1935, Marshall and a few others formed the Wilderness Society and dedicated the new organization to keeping tracts of federal land free of roads and motors. As all good organizations do, the Wilderness Society launched a newsletter called The Living Wilderness. In its inaugural issue, a short article appeared titled, “Three Great Western Wildernesses: What Must be Done to Save Them?.” In it, Marshall made the case for the North Cascades’ protection.
Marshall held freedom dear. If he could not get away from others and enjoy the freedom of a long hike in the western mountains—he was famous for hiking twenty, thirty, even forty miles a day—he could not be satisfied. This type of freedom required planning and protection, because in the 1930s, roads crisscrossed the countryside with multiplying speed.
The US Forest Service—Marshall’s employer most of his career—controlled most of the North Cascades. A portion of these national forests were managed for recreation, not commercial timber harvest. The year before Marshall’s article, in fact, nearly one million acres, snug up against the Canadian border, had been set into a “primitive area.” This pleased Marshall, but he would have been happier if the Forest Service protected the area further south, too. Marshall looked at a map and saw a vast area without roads—one of the last such expanses—that might stay that way.
The section to the south—about 30 miles east to west and 40 miles north to south—covered the Cascades crest like a blanket. Marshall told readers of The Living Wilderness that this should be “kept free from all mechanical developments.” Scrap the plans for a state highway to bisect the mountain range, he urged. No need for the truck trails the Forest Service envisioned, either.
Here’s a key passage from his plea:
It is important that, in setting this backbone of the Northern Cascades aside as a wilderness area to preserve for wilderness travel one of the most stupenduously [sic] scenic areas in the United States, millions of people who do not care for, or are unable to enjoy, wilderness travel should not be deprived of the possibility of seeing the region. On the other hand, it is even more important that no unfair monopoly of outstandingly beautiful Northern Cascade scenery be given to the motorist.
The perspective is straightforward enough. But the dilemma it touches on reaches to the very nature of the American system of government. What is the relationship between majoritarian and minoritarian values?
Marshall, the lover of freedom, came down on the side of protecting minority rights. This may be an unsurprising position for the son of a prominent Jewish attorney who took on many civil rights causes, or as the author of an article called “The Wilderness as a Minority Right” that he published in the Forest Service Bulletin in 1928.
Marshall took pains to point out all the gorgeous mountain scenery people could drive to in the Cascades. Two highways crossed the range not far to the south of the North Cascades. And beyond that, Mount Rainier National Park welcomed cars—in fact, it had been the first national park to officially welcome them.
But this block of the North Cascades needed to remain open—without cars, without timber operations, without mines. (I suppose his critics would have seen that as “closed.”)
The majority who preferred modern travel or who could not participate in wilderness excursions lost out, were excluded, lost the democratic contest. But Marshall insisted, “it is even more important that no unfair monopoly of outstandingly beautiful Northern Cascade scenery be given to the motorist.”
Marshall made his point.
Some agreed; others didn’t. That happens in a democracy.
(A few years later, in 1939, Marshall hiked across his beloved North Cascades near Glacier Peak. He fell ill just after the hike and died, 38 years old. Marshall provided an expansive vision for wilderness preservation in the North Cascades, a plan other conservationists could follow: a vast roadless wilderness area.)
Compromises—also central to democratic governance—were necessary to move toward Marshall’s vision. Stopping the cross-mountain road proved impossible, for instance. How often do you stop a road that large?
Soon, a more pressing issue arose: how do you stop a mine?
Chapter 2. Stopping Kennecott
In the 1950s, Kennecott Copper Corporation acquired mining claims at Miners Ridge near Image Lake in what became Glacier Peak Wilderness designated as such by the Forest Service in 1960. Four years later, Congress passed the Wilderness Act and included Glacier Peak as among the original protected areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Wilderness status formally prohibited motors, roads, and most commercial activities. What made it different after 1964 was the designation rested with Congress and was, more or less, permanent. All the protective measures before then by the Forest Service were administrative and could be undone with the stroke of an administrator’s pen.
Given its restrictions—“wilderness” is our most restrictive land use category—the Wilderness Act attracted powerful opponents and getting it through Congress took significant compromises. One of the biggest concerned mining. Advocates for mining persuaded lawmakers to allow mining exploration to continue for two more decades and, if paying mineral claims were found, nothing could stop their development and operation.
Kennecott tested the strength of that political compromise at Miners Ridge.
In late 1966, the company announced its plan to develop an open-pit copper mine. This idea would have bothered most wilderness advocates anywhere. But the site sat at what many people called the “scenic climax” of the region, next to a stunning alpine lake that perfectly reflected the beautiful Glacier Peak (see above). What’s more, getting there was relatively easy from the growing Seattle metropolitan area. A more potent conflict could hardly be designed.
The campaign to stop the corporation lasted for years and included some moments of important symbolism:
The Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, spoke powerfully to the Sierra Club about the need to stop the company. He encouraged his audience to “take every possible opportunity to inform the officers and shareholders of the company, and the American public of the issues at stat on Miner’s [sic] Ridge.”
A local doctor, Fred Darvill (more about him in next week's newsletter), bought three shares in Kennecott solely so he could travel to the annual shareholder meeting and demand the company cease its plan to mine the copper. He stood up and said, “I have come here today to talk about wilderness and beauty.” He then made his request and ended in rhyme: “Let it not be said, and said to your shame, that all was beauty here, until Kennecott Copper came.”
A Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, led a hike of protesters—“a band of 150 adults, kids, dogs, and an assortment of people wearing beards and beads,” the local papers said—into the woods where he inspired the group. “Just because something’s legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right,” said a judge who sat at the highest bench in the nation.
A college student, Benjamin Shaine, gathered hundreds of signatures from scientists across the nation opposing the mine and hand-delivered it to Kennecott’s president. The petitioners insisted that “corporations act in the long-term public interest, even at some financial sacrifice. . . . [They must be] willing to forgo a portion of this nation’s potential for affluence in exchange for the preservation of the best of our wild and scenic lands free from commercial development.”
And when supporters of turning the North Cascades into a national park (which would take the land away from the Forest Service) spoke at congressional hearings in Seattle, hundreds came and burst the carrying capacity of hotel conference rooms, dozens and dozens of them denouncing Kennecott’s plans. One of them, the great Polly Dyer, concluded that there exist “some lands in these United States that should never have become the private holdings of any one person or company—and this is one of them; there are some lands that should be held in trust for all Americans—and this is one of them.”
These are the tip of the iceberg of a fascinating campaign I detailed in my book An Open Pit Visible from the Moon. But the odds were against these stalwart defenders of the wild.
Remember: Kennecott enjoyed every legal right to dig their pit and take out the copper and build a processing plant and construct a road (and pollute streams just a little if necessary). No one could sue them. The Forest Service couldn’t stop them. Congress couldn’t halt the mine them without re-writing the Wilderness Act. You could have been forgiven in 1967 to think the campaign was hopeless.
But if you head to Miners Ridge this summer, you’ll have to walk, because there is no road to a processing plant and no mine will greet you. Kennecott backed away.
Miners Ridge isn’t in the national park, but it might have been. An aroused public did manage to persuade Congress to establish that park in 1968, its southern boundary just a bit north of Miners Ridge. I am convinced that one factor in the park’s creation was the publicity of the fight against Kennecott. In the face of legal impotency, conservationists wanted a stronger hand in the North Cascades. A national park promised them that.
Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, pierces the roadless area of Bob Marshall’s day. But it’s the only one. This park, its architects intended, would be a different park, a wilderness park, and remain isolated, rugged, protected from crowds.
Questions about land management are always complicated, and in a democracy, compromise will always run through them. Often, it takes a radical vision or a dangerous threat to clarify those complexities and push toward compromise.
Besides my own book, I relied on Lauren Danner, Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park; David Louter, Windshield Wilderness: Cars, Roads, and Nature in Washington's National Parks; and Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement. And, of course, "Three Great Western Wildernesses: What Must be Done to Save Them?," The Living Wilderness 1 (September 1935): 9-11.
Earlier this week, a new essay of mine appeared in Barzakh Magazine, which had a special feature around the concept "In Nature." I'd love for you to read the essay, called "Wild Times."
Adam M. Sowards — Barzakh Wild Times
In it, I think pretty hard about wilderness and time, all set in a place that means a great deal to me: the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness:
And if you missed my essay published last month, "Submerged Stories, Breaching History" with Wild Roof Journal, please go take a look at that.
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit). If this issue was especially interesting to you, you'll no doubt enjoy my book, An Open Pit Visible From the Moon, where I dive into these issues in much greater detail.
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week's feature is The Field Trip, and it will be a bit of a change of pace--even as it has connections to what I shared this week. I hope you enjoy it.