SEATTLE — It’s a scenic jewel hidden in plain sight. Yet it’s one of the least-visited national parks in the country.
North Cascades National Park, created in 1968, has its champions, though, and some of them want to see the park expanded to include more than 200,000 acres of federal land left off the original proposal that many people probably even today think are protected.
Liberty Bell? That iconic peak isn’t in the park. All that mountain scenery clawing the sky along Highway 20? Nope. The rain forest and old growth along the Baker River? No.
Longtime advocates for some of Washington state’s most beautiful wild lands want to change that.
They face formidable political challenges. Battles to get Congress to expand parks and wilderness areas usually take years and are often opposed by those who fear new restrictions on recreational use or development. And the North Cascades proposal, first floated three years ago, lacks a champion in a Congress that is focused on budget cutting.
But supporters are in it for the long haul. They are a high-powered group with deep roots in the state’s conservation movement.
There’s former U.S. Sen. Dan Evans, who in Congress helped write the state’s wilderness areas into law, and as governor, stood up for creation of the park. Polly Dyer of Seattle, who as a founding board member of the North Cascades Conservation Council helped get the original park legislation through Congress, is among other luminaries of the region’s conservation community backing the proposal, including Norm Winn, Art Kruckeberg, Gordon Orions, and Estella Leopold, along with climbing superstars John Roskelley and Jim Wickwire.
“It’s wild, and it should always stay that way,” said Dyer, 92, who was traveling to visit Harts Pass in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest with Donna Osseward, 73, and a van full of camping gear last month. Osseward, a committed conservationist herself, had to feign a bad back to keep Dyer from pitching a tent.
To Dyer, this landscape, with meadows that give way to glacier-carved valleys and infinite views to the west, ridge upon ridge, always should have been in the park.
But it and other landmark landscapes on federal land were left out because of controversy over logging and other extractive use that could have sunk the whole park proposal. Pulling back the boundaries of the park left out important places that today remain unprotected — and underutilized.
“We fought for every inch,” said Evans, who battled for the park as a Republican governor of Washington. “There was opposition, as there always is, especially in those days when natural-resource industries were a much bigger part of our economy, and particularly with the timber industry there was a lot of opposition to any park at all.”
As the state’s population grows, protection is needed now more than ever, Evans said. “We have got to preserve these places, otherwise we lose an awful lot of our heritage.”
The park always has been an underdog.
It lacks the sort of marquee attractions that bring in tourists, such as Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park. The North Cascades National Park also is a struggle to reach on a highway that is closed some eight months of the year. Even when Highway 20 is open, it provides no direct, paved access to the park, which is reached only by footpath or gravel road.
It takes about an hour, for instance, to reach popular hiking trails such as Cascade Pass on the 23-mile, unpaved Cascade River Road.
The National Park Service, which tracks visitation by backcountry permits and estimates of day hikers and visitors to Cascade Pass, rates North Cascades National Park by far the least visited of Washington’s three national parks, with just more than 20,000 visitors a year.
That is the second-lowest rate of visitation to a national park in the Lower 48, after a park on an island in the Great Lakes.
The park also suffers a bit of an identity crisis. Highway 20 until very recently had no sign announcing the existence of the park. And even the North Cascades National Park visitor center in Sedro-Woolley sells memorabilia featuring landscapes labeled as landmarks in the park that actually are outside its boundaries.
Part of the goal of the expansion plan is to increase park visitation by bringing the park’s boundaries down to the highway and adding about $23 million in new amenities, with the cost spread over at least five years.
The proposal includes new trails and campgrounds, to provide more family-friendly, low-elevation, three-season recreation opportunities that the high rock and ice of today’s park can’t offer.
The expansion also would protect important habitat for salmon and other wildlife, including animals in need of big, open space, from grizzly bears to mountain goats.
Wickwire, the mountaineer, and co-chair of the advisory committee for the American Alps Legacy Proposal, as the project is called, said he knows these things take time. But to him, this is a landscape that has waited long enough.
“To get this kind of view, you usually have to climb one of these things,” Wickwire said, looking out from Slate Peak, more than 7,400 feet in the sky. While he’s climbed many of the major peaks in the world — and was one of the first two Americans to ascend K2 — “it’s the mountains close to home that mean the most,” Wickwire said.
First rolled out in 2009, the original proposal has been scaled back.
The eastern boundary of the expansion was pulled back to Washington Pass from the Mazama area when critics in the Methow Valley opposed having the park — or a park gateway community — in their backyard. That shrank the proposed expansion to a little more than 237,000 acres from 350,000.
Some people say they just don’t like the National Park Service as a landowner because they want to be able to do whatever they want in the woods — take pack animals, hunt, camp, bike, enjoy motorized recreation or bring their dogs — whenever they want, without permits.
“To me coming into the backcountry is partly about getting off the clock,” said Perry Burkhart, of Gig Harbor, who with his wife, Sharon, likes to tour the backcountry of the North Cascades using goats to carry gear.
“We can’t take our goats in the park, and we’d have to get permits. It restricts your freedom,” Burkhart said.
But outside the park, lands that also lack federal wilderness protection are vulnerable to mining, logging, hydropower development and road building. “This is about long-term protection,” said Jim Davis, president of American Alps.