Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part III: Landscapes of Vision

Wild Speculations

The future of anything is difficult to predict, least of all something as complex as a landscape. Eighty years ago, nobody would have thought that 2,480,774 acres in the North Cascades would one day be included in a national wilderness preservation system—but that is how much there is today. No one had yet conceived of such a system. Only a handful of national parks had been established. In the fall of 1915 Stephen Mather, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and soon-to-be director of the new National Park Service, met in Seattle with advocates for a Mount Baker National Park. Members from Bellingham's Mount Baker Club, The Mountaineers in Seattle, and Portland's Mazamas, all advocates for the park, attended the meeting. Everyone was enthusiastic about the park, the only disagreement being over whether Mount Shuksan should be included. Mather thought it should be in the park, but the Mount Baker Club argued it should be excluded "out of consideration for certain mining interests that would be involved." [1] A bill to create the park was subsequently introduced in Congress, but the United States' entry into World War I stifled its progress and no Mount Baker National Park came to be. Fifty-two years later a national park was approved in the North Cascades which included Mount Shuksan but excluded the centerpiece of that earlier proposal, Mount Baker. And why was Mount Baker excluded? This time, compromises "out of consideration for" certain timber interests removed the mountain from park status.

In 1988 Congress designated most of North Cascades National Park part of the National Wilderness Preservation System and named it the Stephen Mather Wilderness, an appropriate way in the minds of some to honor the founder of the National Park Service. The gesture is ironic, for Stephen Mather was not an advocate of wilderness. The idea had not entered official discussion of land use in 1916. Some attending that Seattle meeting, like the Mount Baker Club, wanted a park for the commercial value it would bring to their community. Others, like the Mazama contingent, wanted to preserve the natural beauty of a place they had come to admire on climbs of Mount Baker. Mather and Albright sought to create national parks wherever they could, without compromising standards too much, in order to strengthen their case for a national parks agency and to develop a system of parks bureaucratically comparable to the United States Forest Service. To be fair to Mather, he loved natural beauty, believed in its preservation, and sought to create parks for many good reasons. But as an urbanite who loved motoring more than hiking, he was not out to protect wilderness as such, though in the end his work helped the cause of wilderness preservation. His penchant for developing national parks was one factor which encouraged emergence of the wilderness idea in national forests, which in turn led to passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and designation of the Stephen Mather Wilderness in 1988. History takes ironic turns.

Forces unforeseen by Mather and the others at that 1915 meeting produced the landscape we know today. After World War I the Forest Service discovered recreation and wilderness and used them to foil national park system expansion in the North Cascades and elsewhere. After a second world war the forces of economic expansion pushed roads into the North Cascades and other roadless places in search of timber and other natural resources, thereby reviving latent efforts to preserve values of wild nature. Part of the landscape became national park in 1968, and wilderness was designated in 1964, 1968, 1976, 1984, and 1988. The core of this mountain region was given as much protection from development as any piece of land in the modern world. The North Cascades became one of the greatest concentrations of official wilderness in the United States. But will park and wilderness designation protect the wildlife, beauty, and solitude of this place?

All national parks and wilderness areas have been products of compromise molded out of consideration for various interests. I can travel today deep into the North Cascades and find vistas unmarred by logging, but most views even from the deep recesses of park or wilderness are marred by the linear scars of clearcuts. Aircraft intrude into even the most remote cirques and valleys. Commercial jets coming and going from Seattle rumble constantly over the Alpine Lakes and Glacier Peak areas. Military jets roar up mountain valleys, bursting over passes in explosions of sound so startling that people are literally knocked off their feet by surprise and fright. Animals and plants, their habitats decreased by development outside protected areas, struggle to survive.

Now that we have this official "wild" country we struggle with the challenge of managing it. Some say we should just leave it alone—let it manage itself. But can alpine meadows survive with ever-increasing numbers of visitors, all with the best of intentions, literally loving them to death? Others say we should do landscape planning and ecosystem management in places like this, and think about natural subdivisions of the landscape like entire watersheds. These may be excellent ideas, but how do we implement them across a landscape subdivided into national forest and national park, wilderness and working forest, federal and state, and public and private land? Slowly we are coming to the realization that we cannot engineer nature for our purposes as handily and certainly as we once thought we could. As knowledge has increased, so has uncertainty.

We talk much these days about landscape plans and ecosystem management. Our confidence in our management ability may be shaken but is certainly not gone. We still think we can use our science and technology to mold the world to our purposes, yet as failures occur we seem to be learning a measure of humility, albeit small. As I contemplate the future of this landscape, I am reminded of the ancient Greeks who worried about hubris, pride before a fall. They feared they would be punished for their arrogance, that nemesis would be the consequence of that arrogance, a revenge of nature (or the gods in that nature). Should we worry about that? We probably should, whether we advocate wilderness for this place or call for some other use.

Michael and I sit atop a huge flat-topped boulder we call Fire Rock. We watch a small fire we've built on the rock where it won't burn any soil and leave a trace of our presence. We tend a base camp here, which we call Albert Camp, for a group of college students who are scattered across the surrounding ridges in solo camps observing the land and themselves and reflecting on what they find. Many are alone in a remote place for the first time.

We are here, high on the shoulder of a rocky ridge on the eastern edge of the North Cascades, and from our perch we look southward across rolling hills, the eastern Cascades foothills, covered mostly with lodgepole pine. As darkness falls, we see a solitary electric light far to the southeast, a reminder of the outside. We are here for two weeks. Thrush whistles rise from the pines and firs as dusk turns to night. Coyotes wail and yap off to the south, and we talk quietly. Scattered clouds shade from pink to purple as the sun drops behind the ridge to the west.

A year ago Michael was up here for the first time. A blizzard blew down on the high country, and his group became disoriented trying to cross Horseshoe Mountain in the clouds and wind-driven snow. They missed base camp and nearly went down a deep gorge into Hell's Hole, a valley filled with huge boulders and nearly impenetrable stands of lodgepole pine.

"We need places like this to get lost in," he says. "We had a few bad moments, but we found shelter, got out the map, looked at the compass, and worked our way out. We couldn't control the storm, but could control ourselves, and we did. We thought it a great adventure."

A few days later we make our way along a ridge and spot a bear a mile away across the same gorge down which Michael's group had wandered in the snowstorm. The bear is on a south-facing slope tearing up a meadow in likely pursuit of golden-mantled ground squirrels. Black bears are common here, but this one wears a reddish-brown coat rather than the customary black. Could this, we ask ourselves, be one of the mythical Cascade grizzlies? It is too far away and screened by scattered trees to see very well, even with binoculars. Safely distant as we are from the bear, we badly want it to be a grizzly.

Later, back in camp, we return to Fire Rock, bask in the afternoon sun, and talk about what a grizzly would mean to this place. To us this bear is the ultimate symbol of wildness. If such a bear was over there eating squirrels, this landscape had just become more wild. Our experience of the place had changed. The risk of being here was greater, but the wilderness, and our experience of it, was more complete. When Indians traveled through these mountains in search of game, this was not wilderness. They had no such idea of the place. This was part of home, and they shared it with grizzlies and other hunters. White hunters, miners, and ranchers removed the bear (or so they thought), and now it may be returning. Michael and I agree this is good.

"Some of my friends, who love the backcountry and wilderness, don't agree with this view," says Michael. "They like their wilderness low risk. I think that's very ironic—and wrong. If the bear can live here, if the habitat for it is here, then it should be here. We can and we should share this place."

After dinner we make the rounds checking the soloing students. They leave a signal flag that tells us all is well. Sitting atop a block of lichen-covered rock, the highest point on the ridge west of camp, we watch the sun set over Cathedral Peak and other ridges to the west. I tell Michael how, a few years earlier, I tracked a cougar to this very spot. A light snow fell in the afternoon, and I crossed the track of the cat in the fresh snow. Following it, I found myself looking down from this rock at a solitary student sitting beside his tent. The curious cat had been twenty feet from him, had watched him, then moved on. I never saw the cat, and neither did the student, but it surely watched us.

I tell Michael how later, when I told the student what I had seen, he just stared at me, saying nothing. I wondered if he was angry that I had placed him in such a position. After a moment he said, "That's incredible. I wish I'd seen it. I don't even know anybody who has ever seen a mountain lion in the wild! It's like he said it was okay for me to be here in his territory." We talked about how this was the lion's home, and we were the intruders. The more he talked about it, the more excited he became. He said he was honored by the visit. He seemed to see no risk in it at all, which was the way I had seen it. The cat was curious, there were plenty of deer around to satisfy its appetite; this was a brief brush with the true wildness of this place.

I reflect back on how I was up here with another group of students when thunder rolled out of a clear sky. How could this be? we asked each other. No storm was in sight. Someone joked that it was Mount St. Helens blowing up far to the south, but it couldn't be—the mountain was 200 miles away. Muffled thunder continued off to the south as the group dispersed on their wilderness business.

A few hours later a Forest Service messenger walked into camp to tell us the mountain had blown. That evening I sat with my assistant on Fire Rock and watched the last rays of sun color the ash cloud which had climbed 10 miles high over the distant mountain. Darkness was nearly upon us, yet that cloud shown brightly over the southern horizon. The students, watching from their solitary camps, could not know what they were seeing. Alan and I talked in wonder about the inconceivable scale of what had happened, of how puny we seemed in the face of it. A cold wind howled through the whitebark pines and we seemed fragile creatures in a primal landscape. We watched until the color disappeared into the night darkness, and the wilderness seemed wilder than we had ever known it.

We carried on our work in the backcountry for a week after the eruption, coming together to talk about this vast and wondrous natural event. A week later, when we finally came out of the wilderness, we read of the eruption in different terms than we had been using. The eruption was, in human terms, a catastrophe, a natural disaster. People were dead and injured, property damaged, and forests literally flattened. In our mountain camp, what we had seen as cause for wonder we now saw as destruction and disaster. We experienced contrasting perspectives on this event.

Michael and I agreed the perspective on nature and ourselves which we have when in wilderness is very important. When we return to our daily routines we see the world, at least for a time, differently. We are reminded that nature is all around us and that we are fragile and not in control of everything. We are a bit more humble.

Historian Nancy Langston observes, "There are ways of living on the land that pay attention to the land, and ways that do not." [2] We have not lived in and around places like the North Cascades very long—we have been here in any numbers for little more than a century. And we have only just begun to pay attention to the land in any sense other than as a source of resources to fuel our civilization. We decided to protect wildness in the rugged core of these mountains because we found value in the beauty and inspiration found there. The decision was not difficult—the practical uses of these places were few. The natural defenses against human activity of weather and topography were too strong for much economic development. We thought we were not giving up much when we said, "Leave it as it is."

But the decisions become ever more difficult as there are more of us with more competing interests and values. Today, for instance, we are learning the importance of biological diversity and trying to protect species, but we cannot simply find places useful to spotted owls that are "throwaway" places for us and give them a reservation. They need what some of us want—remaining ancient forests with their big, economically valuable trees. The land seems to be telling us we need complexity and diversity for our own good as well as that of other creatures, but to have it we need to give up some profits and even some jobs.

Langston makes another point central to thinking about the future of this landscape. We have made mistakes resulting in fire, disease, and other plagues upon the land. We have created difficulties, she says, because we have often tried to force the land to fit our idealized visions of it. In these North Cascades, for instance, some of us have envisioned a place entirely free from human impact, a place where bears and wolves roam, where nature is as it was, a place where we can touch the nature of nature before we were present. Or, on the other hand, our vision has been a landscape of production and efficiency, where exercise of knowledge and technical ability allows us to forever take resources from the land without damaging it (or at least not damaging it much). We have been so obsessed with such visions, says Langston, that we have too often been blinded to information the land sends us. The truth is there are limits to what we can manage in either direction.

We find the same lesson here we found in contemplating the eruption of Mount St. Helens: humility. Spinning visions of the future we desire is dangerous business, not to be done casually. We can be so blinded by our desires and ambitions that we literally lose touch with reality. We can be so bent on bending nature to our aspirations, whether they be preservation or development, we stop listening to the land. Can we envision a human community here more humble in its views of what it can and should do on this land? Such a community will be better able to recognize limits of what it can manage on the land—whether the managers be scientists, foresters, environmentalists, politicians, or wilderness rangers. Such a vision—perhaps dream is a better word for it—will require deep rethinking of what we are and what nature is, but the self-examination is underway. As the naturalist David Raines Wallace has written, "If there is symmetry to evolution, the future will not see us dominating all other life as gods. It will see us becoming part of a greater organism which we can not imagine." [3]

We draw lines across this and every other landscape as we try to impose the shapes of our visions upon them. We confidently say, "This is park and wilderness—that should be enough for the creatures that need wild places. The rest of the land will be for production." But as we listen to the land we come up with ideas such as island biogeography and connectivity and fragmented landscapes. As we study how the creatures we have relegated to these reservations are doing, we usually find the reservations are not big enough for them to meet their life needs. Quite possibly they will not survive in these reserves. So we must think about this problem differently. We must think on larger scales of space and time. We must think in terms of watersheds and ecosystems and landscapes. Haltingly, reluctantly, we try, We encounter resistance from those who still believe we humans are firmly in control. To them, all problems are problems of engineering. But we persist, and as we do our thinking forces us across the lines. We move across park and wilderness and state and national forest boundaries.

In the future we will not discuss the North Cascades in quite the way we do today, as though it were some clearly discrete geographic unit. We will instead speak of a region where storms off the north Pacific bring water to rainforests, where rivers gather in the mountains and flow to floodplain and estuary, where populations of animals must disperse across lands we own as individuals as well as collectively. We will talk of systems and networks and will see this mountain region as part of a place where we live with other creatures. Our backyards will be connected to our backcountry, and our planners and managers will think of all of these parts as one entity. The upshot will be that we will live in and with this place. We will be part of it and it will be part of us in ways we find hard to understand today. Boundaries will still be here, of course, but they will not be the barriers they are today. They will help people define their rights, as they do now, but will also help define responsibilities more than they do at present. The view across the physical world will not look very different than it does today, but the world of ideas that governs our relations with this place will be very different.

Each year I try to visit Albert Camp, to return for a few days to this wilderness place for solitude and reconnection. Barry Lopez writes that we must come to look upon the land "not as its possessor but as a companion." To do this, in his view, requires "cultivating intimacy, as one would with a human being. And that would mean being in a place, taking up residence in a place." [4] Albert Camp is in an official wilderness—no residences in the conventional sense are allowed. How can we "take up residence" in such a place?

When I am at Albert Camp I seem to open up to the world. The weather engulfs me. I hear the lilting song of the ruby-crowned kinglet, the buzz of the mountain chickadee, and the croak of the raven. Bear, cougar, wind, and blizzard remind me of my place in this community. Here I live more fully in the present. Something about this place opens me to my self and surroundings. Memories of time spent in the wilderness at Albert Camp are as vivid as any in life and are reminders of opportunities often lost in the crush of daily routine, especially the loss of connections to the world around me.

Such places not only seem to intensify connections with natural surroundings but also with people. Lacking the preoccupations of TV and E-mail, we interact with human companions, talk more, tell stories, share the experience of storm or spring day or encounter with a wild resident of the place. We have, in a sense, created this place by excluding distractions of modern technology. Here we can be reminded of some of the costs of building lives around the technological gadgets we all enjoy and depend upon. We return to them, of course, but for a while are reminded of what they are and what they do to our life experience.

Living at Albert Camp, then, is an interlude that allows me to see myself and nature through a different lens, to slow down and tend to the present and establish intimacy, much of that intimacy with a natural community. When I go home to the city, I do not leave that community, but move to another part of it. Perhaps that is the most important lesson I learn there.

Life at Albert Camp is instructive in another way. When I go there I am constantly aware of the need to minimize my impact on this pristine landscape. I want to have no impact, but since that is not possible, I try to offset my impact with good works—cleaning up other people's litter, removing fire rings, whatever. Do I feel this same responsibility and take this same care at home in the lowlands? Not as I should, yet that is where I truly reside. The need to care for my place in the lowlands must be at least as great as in the wilderness, so why do I not take the same pains down there? It must be that I value the wilderness place more, but if I do, I am a fool. And so it goes—this place where I only occasionally live forces me to think about responsibility for the place where I live most of the time. I come to see that I must live the same everywhere, that I am a resident of Earth and not of this or that separate part of the place.

Everyone in our crowded world certainly cannot find nature and wildness in vast protected places like the Pasayten Wilderness. Remote settings with bears and mountain lions are not the only places where we can learn the lessons I have learned at Albert Camp. We can find wildness, if we look, in our gardens, city parks, and in the landscapes that lie between the city and wilderness. Isn't that the point? The neighborhood park, the woodland down the street, the managed forest, and the local lake are all part of the same natural community, and if we open ourselves to these places, we can become intimate with them. If, in the future, we decide we will set aside a small portion of the landscape for such experiences, relegating everything else to shopping centers, parking lots, and housing developments, then even those places we set aside to be wild will be doomed. They will be crushed by visitors, loved to death, and the bear and cougar will perish. Only if we see this landscape as a living place, where we can and must live but within limits, will its future be one in which "wildness" will survive. When Henry David Thoreau wrote "In wildness is the preservation of the world" a century and a half ago, what he may have meant was that only if we recognize that we are part of nature, that wildness is a quality of place upon which we all depend, and that we bear the responsibility to nurture that wildness, will we prosper and sustain ourselves as members of the natural community. The future of this North Cascades landscape will reflect how well we incorporate this insight.

The aim of Stephen Mather's meeting in Seattle eighty years ago was to draw lines on a map which would transpose to a landscape and meet human goals there. His intention was to create a park, a "pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" as Congress had stated in establishing Yellowstone National Park in 1872. [5] The intention was also, as specified in the act forming the National Park Service being drafted even as Mather spoke with the Seattle group, to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein" and "provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." [6] These aims seemed simple and straightforward in that simpler time. Today we know that putting boundaries around geography is not enough. Achievement of our goals on any landscape requires much more.

I am an admirer of Stephen Mather and the work he did. He led a defensive action on a bureaucratic front, continuing work which John Muir had begun and that would be carried on by Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, and David Brower, among others. Whether or not Mather understood wilderness as we think of it today, his actions contributed to its preservation. But the time is past when even the best-intentioned could come together, inspired by a leader such as Mather, and divide up the "spoils" of an undeveloped continent. The task now is to work together as part of a greater community of the North Cascades. As recent rifts over spotted owls and international parks reveal, such cooperation will not be easy. But it must be done. Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan says, "In other days and places, people paid more attention to the strong-headed will of earth." [7] That is our challenge here and everywhere. Our history is one of believing that ours was the stronger will and that we could impose it upon all creation. Perhaps the humility we can learn in wild places such as the North Cascades will allow us to avoid nemesis. The crags and raven, the monkeyflower and glacier lily, the fir and hemlock will observe how well we do.

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North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980