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Wild, mysterious North Cascades National Park Service Complex turns 50

October 3, 2018
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A snow-covered Pyramid Peak, 7,186 feet high, pops out from the clouds May 1, 2008, as seen from Highway 20 near milepost 133 in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex.

NORTH CASCADES — Fifty years ago, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson created the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, setting aside about 684,000 acres of the mountainous region in Northwest Washington for conservation and recreation.

The “sea of peaks,” as park complex spokeswoman Denise Shultz calls it, is home to melting glaciers, elusive grizzly bears and large expanses of national park land accessible only by foot.

The complex includes North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area within the most rugged mountain range in the U.S. outside of Alaska, according to the National Park Service.

“The North Cascades is where wild America can still be found with all its wildlife and spectacular scenery people have known for thousands of years,” National Parks Conservation Association Northwest Region Director Rob Smith said.

Thanks to the completion in 1972 of Highway 20 — also called the North Cascades Highway — through the Ross Lake portion of the complex, the number of visitors grew through the 1970s, from about 300,000 at the start of the decade to about 918,000 by the end, Shultz said.

Since then, the number of visitors hasn’t changed significantly, fluctuating recently from about 980,000 visitors in in 2016 to about 830,000 in 2017, according to National Park Service data.

A fraction of those visitors — about 30,000 in 2017, according to the data — actually make it into the national park portion of the complex, which is not accessible by Highway 20.

Shultz said the only vehicle access into the national park portion of the complex is from Cascade River Road in Marblemount and Stehekin Valley Road near Lake Chelan. Those roads do not extend too far into park land, leaving the rest to hikers and backpackers brave enough to embark into the wilderness — much of which isn’t even carved up by trails.

“Extremely rugged terrain and vast areas without trails provide opportunities for exploration, solitude and unconfined recreation,” Shultz said.

North Cascades complex wildlife biologist Jason Ransom said knowing there are difficult and impossible-to-reach areas adds mystery to the wilderness tucked away in the park.

“No matter how busy the trails and campgrounds get during the summer, there are corners of the park where humans simply don’t go and that’s the way it should be. ... It’s comforting to know that it is truly wild and inaccessible enough to keep some of its secrets,” he said.

Most of the North Cascades complex — 94 percent to be exact — is designated wilderness, where motorized equipment is not used except in emergency situations. That designation, as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, came 30 years ago.

The complex spans the Cascade Crest, from the temperate rainforest on the west side to dry ponderosa pine forests on the east, with some peaks reaching 9,000 feet, according to the park service website.

The North Cascades complex is home to sawtoothed rock peaks, creeks and rivers, and alpine meadows — a landscape that supports about 3,000 species of animals including bald eagles, salmon, bears, mountain goats and frogs, Shultz said.

That diversity of wildlife, its accompanying abundance of about 1,600 species of plants, and the rich geology of the North Cascades has drawn people to the area for much longer than the 50-year life of the park complex.

Archeological surveys in the complex have revealed 260 prehistoric sites showing that the rugged North Cascades were important to the region’s indigenous peoples, according to the park service website. Evidence at those sites shows that for nearly 10,000 years people used the resources found in the North Cascades, from obsidian to mountain goats.

More recent history is also preserved within the complex. This includes mines and mining camps, fire lookouts, homesteads and a rustic hotel, according to the website.

Even more recently, the North Cascades, including the park complex, have seen changing wildlife populations, from the recovery of a national icon to the near disappearance of a trademark of North America’s mountain ranges.

“Some species like bald eagles have seen dramatic recovery since the tragic impacts of pesticides nearly 50 years ago. Other species like grizzly bears reached their population tipping point decades ago, only to persist as ghosts,” Ransom said.

Discussions continue about the possibility of restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades, including within the national park complex. Ransom said the wilderness in the complex is equipped to support the bears, should they return.

Meanwhile, the complex is changing in other ways under the influence of a warming climate.

The closely monitored glaciers within the complex are shrinking. Those within the Skagit River watershed have lost an estimated 800 billion gallons of water since 1950, Shultz said.

The glaciers are expected to continue to shrink — along with changes in snowpack, streamflow and tree survival in the complex — over the next 50 years.

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