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Word to the Wild #1:  The American Alps

By On

This is the first installment of a new column by Ken Wilcox on the Northwest outdoors—for active, reactive and proactive people.

Much of interest is brewing these days in the splendiferous wild country of the North Cascades—a fine subject methinks (mehopes) to launch a new cyber-column on the Northwest “big outside.” But “Alps”?

In the 1950s and 1960s, as founders of the North Cascades Conservation Council (or just N3C) pushed for national park and wilderness protection across the dazzling heights of this multi-million-acre ragged, icy, verdant landscape, the national media latched onto the term "American Alps" to give readers from Fort Lauderdale to Kansas City a sense of what this far-faraway place that no one had heard of actually looked like.

Jules Verne made a worthy comparison in Begum's Fortune, published in 1879, when he referred to these mountains as the "American Switzerland."

Monumental conservationist David Brower, an early and life-long member of the board at N3C, made a film about it in the late-1950s called Wilderness Alps of Stehekin, wherein he extolled the wonders of trekking through fields of flowers and huckleberries among great crags in the mist. The film was reportedly viewed by more than 100,000 people from East Coast to West. For many, it was the first they'd ever seen of such a place, and of course it needed to be protected.

"Get up a parade" (of public support) Senator Scoop Jackson told N3C leaders, "and I'll lead it on in." And so he did. The North Cascades Act, signed by Lyndon Johnson in October 1968, established a national park, a national wilderness and two national recreation areas, together spanning 1.2 million acres of paradise, from Mount Shuksan to the Pasayten Wilderness and from Glacier Peak to Canada.

Today, an eastbound traveler entering Marblemount passes a brown park-ish sign that reads “Entering the American Alps.” A few miles later, you are officially there.

Wild and wondrous as it is, much was omitted from this vast reserve in 1968, namely the forest—or at least a major part of it. The timber industry was a monolithic force then that could only be whipped into so much submission, which meant that protected lands, particularly on the west side of the Cascade crest, were largely comprised of rock and ice and scattered groves of higher-elevation fir, hemlock and spruce. The big old-growth timber in many of the lower valleys was deemed more valuable riding on the backs of trucks than just standing there doing nothing.

In 1984, the Washington Wilderness Act furthered the protection of some higher ground, including Mount Baker, but once again much of the surrounding big-tree country was excluded.

To help remedy some of those omissions, a new campaign was launched this May, called the American Alps Legacy Project, which could potentially add 300,000 acres or more of new park and wilderness protection to the greater North Cascades ecosystem. Areas under consideration range from Sauk Mountain and Cascade River on the west side, to Washington Pass and the Golden Horn area east of the crest. Maps and a description of the various study areas are available at the campaign's website, www.americanalps.org.

Perhaps the most significant addition to the park, should it come to pass, would be a 25 to 30-mile stretch of the North Cascades Highway corridor east of Ross Lake. It may seem odd today, but the two high passes along this route—Rainy Pass and Washington Pass—were both left out of the park forty years ago, despite exhibiting some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the range viewable through a windshield. A park addition here could encompass 80,000 acres or more.

North of the highway corridor, a 70,000-acre de facto wilderness surrounds Golden Horn, one of the more conspicuous summits in the region. The area includes Snowy Lakes and a high and wild stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

To the west, nearly 70,000 acres of roadless areas, much of it old-growth forest, extend from Sauk Mountain north to the Baker River. All of it is potentially suited to wilderness designation. For those who might want to get a look at the place, the popular hike up Sauk Mountain ought to be mostly snow-free and thick with wildflowers later in June, thanks to the current warm spell.

South of the Skagit River, another 30,000 acres of National Forest land abuts the national park and could easily be added to the latter, though some of it might make a fine addition to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, originally included in the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Portions of the Ross Lake National Recreation Area could feasibly be re-designated as national park, particularly those areas west of the lake and along Thunder Creek where an old proposal for a dam project fell by the wayside decades ago.

A lot of land, to be sure. But compared to the many millions of acres in the greater North Cascades region that have been logged, roaded or developed in one form or another over the years, the really wild stuff is in the minority. And they aren’t making any more of it.

A lot of issues need sorting through before a specific proposal for park and wilderness protection moves forward, possibly this fall. History suggests that conservationists will not succeed in protecting it all, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But it’s a worthy subject of debate that will touch a wide range of issues. Naysayers will have their naysays, and some may argue it’s not enough. So be it.

In future installments, I'll float a few suggestions for good hikes to an Alpen backyard that even the Swiss might envy.

About Ken Wilcox

Closed Account • Member since Mar 19, 2009

Comments by Readers

Tom Pratum

Jun 05, 2009

Hi Ken-
Thanks for posting this - it is really nice to see something like this on this site, especially as we were just through the pass there a few days ago. I look forward to your future postings.

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