Trip Report: North Cascades National Park Field Tour

The Mountaineers conservation team and our recreation partners recently hosted a field tour in North Cascades National Park with park leadership and congressional staff to discuss current challenges and opportunities for parks and public lands. Read on for more about what we learned.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
June 13, 2023
Trip Report: North Cascades National Park Field Tour
Recreation partners and congressional staff touring the North Cascades National Park Complex. All photos by Betsy Robblee.

From challenging alpine climbs like Forbidden or Sahale Peak to strolls amongst towering cedar trees, the North Cascades National Park Complex has always been a compelling destination for Mountaineers programs and members. Visitors of all ages are drawn to the North Cascades for its natural beauty, rugged terrain, and wilderness experiences.

The Mountaineers advocated for the creation of North Cascades National Park in 1968 and continues to be a key partner and advocate of the park. Our conservation staff meets regularly with Park leadership to learn how we can support their work and share our members’ priorities.

Recently, we hosted a field tour of North Cascades National Park with Park leadership, congressional staff, and recreation partners. The tour was a great opportunity to observe and discuss current challenges with managing increased visitation to the North Cascades National Park Complex and how additional resources can help the park manage projected visitation levels into the future.

We were joined by Park leadership including Superintendent Don Striker, staff from Senator Patty Murray’s and Congressman Rick Larsen’s offices, American Whitewater, Washington Trails Association, and National Park Conservation Association.

Current Challenges

Once a true wilderness destination, the North Cascades National Park Complex has increased in popularity, drawing more visitors to its striking emerald reservoirs and towering forested slopes. Visitation has increased by 42 percent in the last ten years, with much of the use occurring at Diablo Lake Overlook, Colonial Creek day use area, and other parking lots and trails along Highway 20. The limited amount of flat areas in the park precludes further development of many additional visitor destinations, but there are several promising opportunities to better use existing resources.

To get oriented to the area, we began the morning with a boat tour of Diablo Lake, including Diablo and Ross Dam. On the boat, the group discussed the Skagit hydropower relicensing process with Seattle City Light. The utility is seeking to renew its federal license to continue operating the Skagit River dams for an additional three to five decades. The relicensing process offers a unique opportunity to secure funding for recreation improvements as mitigation for the hydroelectric project. The Mountaineers believes it’s imperative that the Skagit relicensing process properly mitigate for the current and future recreation visitors the project attracts.

IMG_2333.jpgField tour attendees boarding a boat at Diablo Lake.

Following the boat tour, we toured the Colonial Creek day use area, the town of Diablo, and Newhalem. These popular destinations allowed us the opportunity to discuss the park’s funding challenges. Park leadership conveyed that North Cascades is a “large park with a small budget.” Since they aren’t able to collect fee revenue at a gate like other parks such as Mt. Rainier, their budget is smaller than similarly complex parks.

Funding Needs

Budget constraints lead to fewer staff who are able to manage increased visitation, maintain trails, and respond to search and rescue missions. Indeed, while we were in the park, two members of the Park’s leadership team were called away to manage a search and rescue and address bear activity. Park staff shared that they have fewer than 20 staff to maintain and improve their 400 miles of trails. They lack modern communications and emergency response infrastructure needed to respond to the many issues that arise throughout the course of the season.

Attracting and retaining staff is also a challenge, just like it is for other national parks and forests. Private housing has gotten more unaffordable and harder to find, and already inadequate park housing is getting more expensive because the Park Service must charge their employees market rate for housing. Housing challenges are an issue we’ve also seen at Mt. Rainier National Park as they struggle to hire both seasonal and permanent staff.

Fortunately, North Cascades National Park is receiving funding from the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The Park will be receiving $2.3 million over eight years from the IRA to help support staffing. They will be implementing several GAOA deferred maintenance projects over the next year, including improvements to the Cascade Pass trailhead, Stehekin Lodge, and various campground improvements.

While these projects are much needed, ultimately the park needs additional funding in its base budget to maintain adequate staffing and keep up on maintenance and improvements. Increasing federal land manager staffing and funding is a top advocacy priority for The Mountaineers, and we’ll continue to share ways to take action on this important issue.

IMG_2353.jpgField tour attendees hiking the thunder knob trail in the colonial creek area of the park.

Looking Ahead

At our last stop of the day in Newhalem, we discussed the upcoming wildfire season and the increasing threat of wildfire on the west side of the Cascade mountains. The park has already had three fires start this year and is concerned that a low snow year and a warm, dry spring will contribute to an active wildfire season. Last year, the Chilliwack Complex Fire burned over 10,000 acres in the Chilliwack range and caused severe damage to the Copper Loop and Whatcom Pass trails. Those trails are closed for the foreseeable future as the Park works to restore them.

Field tours like this help The Mountaineers, congressional staff, and our partners better understand the challenges faced by national parks and forests and how we can advocate to protect them. Like so many of our parks and public lands, North Cascades National Park is managing more visitors than ever before in the face of intensifying wildfires and threats from climate change and an ever-shrinking budget. We’ll continue to advocate for robust funding and resources for North Cascades and other special places, so we can protect the public lands that host our outdoor adventures, valuable ecosystems, and threatened wildlife.

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Dan Renfrow
Dan Renfrow says:
Jun 16, 2023 07:57 PM

Let's set up maintenance activities and encourage our membership to pitch in to help the park that we use! How do we get started?