When I sat down last week to read Lauren Danner’s Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park, I was worried. I had caught the crud that’s been spreading through the valley and was taking cough medicine that I’m pretty sure was laced with horse tranquilizers. Would I be able to concentrate on a nonfiction book? Would it hold my interest? Would I even be able to make sense out of the jumble of letters swimming before my eyes? I needn’t have worried. Crown Jewel Wilderness was captivating from the start and held my interest until the very end.
In time for the 50th anniversary of the creation of the North Cascades National Park, environmental historian Danner has written a compelling book detailing the creation of the crown jewel of Washington state. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time in the park hiking, camping, and climbing. Yet, I’ve (shamefully) never given the actual creation and protection of the park and surrounding land a second thought. The entitlement is strong over here – I’ve taken for granted the fact that I can head out and enjoy some phenomenally stunning and rugged wilderness anytime I want.
As Danner writes, “On contemporary maps, the North Cascades are a patchwork quilt of land-use designations in discrete green hues, each boundary line the result of political negotiation and compromise. How the park became a reality is a compelling story of political maneuvering and shifting consciousness about the human-environment relationship.” Arriving at those land-use designations eventually involved two presidents, two federal agencies, numerous members of Congress, Washington’s governor and state officials, resource industry leaders, the state legislature, and citizens within and beyond the state’s borders. This was not a linear task. The book details the very complicated path to get there and is skillfully told by Danner.
The idea for a national park in the North Cascades of Washington state first appeared in 1892, but it wasn’t until October 1968 that North Cascades National Park Complex was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. In the seventy-six years between, proposals for a national park emerged in 1906, 1916, 1935, 1940 and in the 1950s. Also during this period, the idea that parts of the public domain should be preserved as wilderness emerged, gained strength and led to the Wilderness Act of 1964.
In Crown Jewel Wilderness, Danner tells the story of the decades of political squabbling over the North Cascades. Agencies debated who should be the primary provider of outdoor recreation (the Forest Service or the National Park Service), what areas should be national park as opposed to national forest, and who should manage wilderness. Conservationists were skeptical that either agency would consider wilderness preservation a priority – they thought the Park Service was too focused on developing the national parks for mass recreation, and the Forest Service was focused on logging.
But this book is not just a political history of the struggle for the protection of the North Cascades; it is a story of how much people cared about this majestic area, and how dedicated they were to its protection from mining, logging, and development that would mar its rugged beauty. It hit a little too close to home to read President Johnson’s appeal, “There is much to be done. And we are losing ground…The domain of nature shrinks before the demands of commerce.” The fight for conservation remains heartbreakingly relevant in our current political climate.
The conservation story in the North Cascades is not over, and Danner identifies two important issues affecting the park. “The North Cascades and those who live and work there today still face complicated, daunting issues, now more concerned with ecological integrity than recreational access. Two of the biggest are climate change and wildlife restoration.” Danner concludes the book on a celebratory note writing, “The jaw-dropping magnificent North Cascades endure as one of the large, wildest tracts in the continental United States, a crown jewel wilderness to treasure forever.” Yet, she reminds us that to treasure such a place forever will not happen without our involvement.
If you are a fan of National Parks, the Cascades, local history, conservation, and/or land use, I highly recommend this book.