Conservation Currents | Alpine Lakes Wilderness Expansion

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we discuss the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Expansion.
Katherine Hollis Katherine Hollis
Director of Conservation and Advocacy
September 01, 2016

Last summer, I went on a hike with a group of Mountaineers staff and supporters to experience an example of the wild places we, as an organization, work to protect. We started out as so many Mountaineers trips do: meeting at a central location in Seattle, then carpooling to the mountains.

Upon arriving at the Talapus Lake Trailhead we pulled out maps to go over the plan for the day. As I looked at the map I realized we were going to hike through a part of the newly expanded Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The updated Wilderness boundary lines weren’t on any of our maps — the expansion only occurred six months prior.

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness lies between Snoqualmie and Stevens Passes and includes numerous hiking trails, including a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail, climbing objectives like Mt. Stuart, and the awe-inspiring Enchantment Peaks, and lots of, well... alpine lakes!

Much of this area is a relatively short drive from the greater Seattle area, making it incredibly popular, especially for dips in the lakes it’s named for, in the summer season. We planned appropriately for the hike by keeping our total group size under 12 people (or ‘heart-beats’ if traveling with animals in approved areas) per Wilderness and Mountaineers requirements, and implemented Leave No Trace skills, like making sure to pack out all food scraps, and staying on the trail to reduce our group’s impact on plants and soils.

The Alpine Lakes has been a favorite teaching-ground for The Mountaineers’ trips and courses for decades.

In 1971, we published The Alpine Lakes, a coffee-table book of photos of the Alpine Lakes. This book lead directly to the establishment of the wilderness area, when Norm Winn testified on behalf of The Mountaineers in the nation’s capital and presented copies of the book to every member of the Senate committee. When the bill was passed on to President Ford in 1976, significant pressure to veto it came his way from many government agencies. Washington’s Governor at the time, Dan Evans, borrowed the book from a friend, took it to DC, and showed it to the President. Ford was persuaded to set aside the nearly 40,000 acres of Forest Service land as designated Wilderness after seeing the stunning images in our book.

More recently, we were part of the working group that set out to expand the Wilderness boundaries. In December 2014, after years of legislative work, we celebrated the 22,000 acres of designated Wilderness, as well as the Wild and Scenic designation of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers, and Illabot Creek — important arteries to this landscape — that our work created. These additions, including what we hiked through on the trail to Talapus Lake, provide meaningful human-powered recreational opportunities that appeal to a wide range of residents and visitors alike, while also protecting lower-elevation ecosystems as Wilderness. In short, Wilderness means permanent protection of wildlife habitat and places to experience our great outdoors, strengthens local economies and enhances quality of life for all of us.

As a Mountaineers member, you helped make these 22,000 acres of Wilderness happen. Your membership supports our conservation program, which focuses on issues like protecting landscapes and ecosystems that are integral to the outdoor experience. The Mountaineers is nationally recognized for the impact we have in protecting and stewarding our public lands — from our stunning book publications to advocacy work on issues where human-powered recreation and conservation intersect. This work is a critical part of our mission and has been integral in our organization ever since we worked to establish Olympic National Park in 1909.

Building Bridges

I consider myself one of the lucky ones: my parents had my sister and me out hiking and backpacking, playing in mountain streams and cooking mac and cheese over a camp stove, from very young ages. This means that so many of the skills needed to take a hike have simply been part of my consciousness. I don’t remember having to learn them. These early experiences also ensured that my body instinctively ‘knows’ how to move on uneven terrain and through nature.

Having these skills makes for much more enjoyable time outdoors, and Mountaineers courses teach people these skills and get folks outside and into our wild places. I think that’s what makes our conservation work so unique. Our organization builds bridges — bridges to experiencing the outdoors, and then, to caring for these places through trail stewardship, and lastly through giving one’s voice to protecting our natural world.

We continue to speak out for the Alpine Lakes landscape today. A recent example of Mountaineers members lending their voices to protecting our public lands and the outdoor experience they provide is our work to securing National Heritage Area designation for the Mountains to Sound Greenway. 

This greenway is the watershed for the 1.5-million acre corridor stretching from the Seattle waterfront to Ellensburg, WA, and includes large chunks of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, along with many other types of public and private lands. Over 1,600 miles of trails, whitewater runs, back-country skiing and snowshoeing areas, rock climbing routes, and mountain biking opportunities make up the outdoor experience this landscape provides. The National Heritage Area designation would help the different land agencies in the area to better collaborate on management — from trail maintenance to trailhead parking and educational resources.

In the spring of 2015, we asked our members to sign a petition supporting a National Heritage Designation for the Mountains to Sound Greenway. Over 3,000 of you lent your voice to this issue and your signatures helped to more than double individual support for this designation! A year later, we encouraged members to send letters to the bill’s champion, Senator Cantwell, asking for a hearing — the important next step for this legislation. Her office received more than 500 letters from Mountaineers that included specific stories on why this landscape is important to our community. This encouragement resulted in a hearing for the bill last June.

It is The Mountaineers’ voice and influence on conservation issues we celebrated on that hike to Talapus Lake last summer, when we pulled out maps and realized we’d be hiking through some newly designated Wilderness. Our hike allowed us to talk about the importance of this work going forward — legislation like the National Heritage Area designation is just a piece in stewarding this landscape into the future.


Want to learn how to advocate for the places where we play? Take the Outdoor Advocates Network eLearning course Protecting Public Lands 101 and start engaging in advocacy efforts today! Mountaineers members can access the course here and earn their Public Lands Conservation 101 badge. Non-members can access all of the same information here


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