Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Lyndon B. Johnson established the 684,000-acre North Cascades National Park, comprising rugged mountain wilderness with glaciers, high-altitude lakes, and abundant wildlife, including grizzly bears and wolves. More than one million acres of adjacent land was designated as wilderness and national recreation area buffer zones under the same act.

Summary of Event

North Cascades National Park, first proposed in 1892, was a long time coming. Decades of disagreements among the many competing interests, including the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. (USFS), the National Park Service National Park Service, U.S. (NPS), mining and logging companies, public utilities, hunters, anglers, climbers, and other wilderness advocates led to seventy-six years of delays before it was officially recognized and established. On October 2, 1968, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill that established the national park. National parks, U.S.;North Cascades North Cascades National Park [kw]Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]North Cascades National Park, Johnson Establishes (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]Cascades National Park, Johnson Establishes North (Oct. 2, 1968) [kw]National Park, Johnson Establishes North Cascades (Oct. 2, 1968) National parks, U.S.;North Cascades North Cascades National Park [g]North America;Oct. 2, 1968: Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park[09950] [g]United States;Oct. 2, 1968: Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park[09950] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 2, 1968: Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park[09950] [c]Natural resources;Oct. 2, 1968: Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park[09950] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 2, 1968: Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park[09950] Brower, David Jackson, Henry M. Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy Udall, Stewart L.

The first proposal for the park originated from citizens of central Washington State, who advocated a park that would include the picturesque Lake Chelan and the surrounding mountains. Business interests were immediately opposed, and the proposal soon died. By 1905, when Gifford Pinchot Pinchot, Gifford helped form the USFS, the prevailing federal land philosophy was “wise use.” Pinchot, who considered wilderness in some respects a wasted resource, also believed that all public forest lands should be managed for multiple uses on a sustained basis. This philosophy remains at the core of USFS policy and practice.

The North Cascades comprises the area from Mt. Baker on the west to Lake Chelan on the east, and from the Canadian border to just south of Glacier Peak. The Cascades region represents one of the last truly wild places in the lower forty-eight states. The terrain is extremely rugged, and although most of the peaks are less than 9,000 feet in elevation, they seem more spectacular, and higher, because they rise abruptly from an average surrounding elevation of 2,000 feet. This characteristic led many early visitors to refer to the North Cascades as the American Alps.

It has survived so long as a wilderness primarily because of its remoteness and rugged terrain. Mining interests long argued that rich deposits might exist in the area, but it was never economical to exploit them. Likewise, logging was not feasible because of a lack of roads. The area did draw growing interest from climbers and hikers, and other outdoors people, who valued scenic beauty and wilderness solitude, as well as the challenging terrain. It was ultimately the interests of the wilderness adventurers that helped make the park a reality.

North Cascades National Park ca. 1967.


Between the first proposal in 1892 and the first comprehensive study in 1937 by the NPS, which supported establishment of a national park, many smaller national parks in the region were proposed. The most popular areas considered were Lake Chelan and Mt. Baker. The 1937 study went the farthest, suggesting that the entire High Cascade region be made into one large national park encompassing approximately 5,000 square miles. Such a bold proposal was almost immediately attacked by business interests, and the USFS also opposed the idea.

Many environmentalists, too, became convinced that park status was not necessarily the best way to protect the area. Parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone were suffering from too many visitors, and NPS philosophy was supporting the idea of making wildlands more accessible to the public. Critics of the park idea believed that USFS jurisdiction over the area, and the region’s designation as an official wilderness instead of a national park, would be the best way to ensure that the North Cascades region would be preserved in its pristine condition. A Forest Service emphasis on resource use and the redrawing of wilderness boundaries to accommodate business interests soon disillusioned many environmentalists, however, leading to growing support for establishing a national park.

The Forest Service and the Park Service had long been at odds over public land jurisdiction. The conversion of national forest land to national park status meant a loss of income for the federal government from timber sales and other revenue sources. The multiple-use philosophy of the Forest Service meant that the agency was also opposed in principle to the national park concept of wilderness preservation. The 1937 study was especially galling in the light of the recent establishment of Olympic National Park in western Washington, which had been forcefully opposed by the timber industry and the USFS. Attempting to maintain good relations with the Forest Service, the Park Service did not push hard for the new park. In fact, prevailing opinion in the NPS was that the North Cascades region was not particularly unique compared to Mt. Rainier National Park, so fighting for the area was considered a nonpriority.

Throughout much of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and in spite of broad public interest, the USFS refused to allow the NPS to produce a national park feasibility study. There had been a long-standing rule that the Park Service could conduct such studies only with Forest Service permission, and the Forest Service was convinced that it was the appropriate steward. The agency had declared large parts of higher-elevation areas as wilderness, which gave them protection, but wilderness designation was not permanent like a national park; boundaries were always vulnerable to adjustment, usually at the expense of wilderness protection.





Finally, after political pressure from a broad range of outdoor sports and environmental organizations, the USFS was forced to allow the NPS to produce a feasibility study. Key to this outcome were the Sierra Club and its president, David Brower, and the secretary of the interior in the Kennedy administration, Stewart L. Udall, who was a strong proponent of wilderness preservation. Begun in 1963 and released in 1966, the study strongly endorsed the creation of a national park encompassing a large area of the North Cascades but, to the disappointment of many, excluding Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker. The proposal contained numerous compromises to make it more politically palatable. Environmentalists were unhappy with the outcome. Nevertheless, the 1966 report was the catalyst for legislation that would establish North Cascades National Park in 1968.

Henry M. Jackson, a U.S. senator from Washington, took the lead in shaping the final bill, which not only established the national park but also took the unique approach of designating wilderness areas—such as Pasayten Wilderness—and national recreation areas—most notably Lake Chelan—as buffer zones to protect the unspoiled wilderness character of the park itself.

As is typical of legislation, the bill languished in Congress and seemed in some danger of dying, but President Johnson believed the park’s establishment would be an important legacy of his administration. The bill that finally passed was moved to the U.S. House of Representatives, where it faced three other competing national park bills. Finally, the bill passed and President Johnson signed it into law on October 2, 1968. In spite of compromises that reduced the final size of the park, its designation was considered a victory by most of the organizations that lobbied for it.


North Cascades National Park represents the culmination of an increasing concern for wilderness preservation by Americans. More Americans began to embrace the environmental philosophy that a certain amount of wilderness needed to be protected for purely ecological and aesthetic reasons, representing a resurgence of the ideals of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

The designation of North Cascades National Park also was unique because it was established not to preserve and protect specific, prominent features (as was typical of many other parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone) but to preserve and protect a wide area of wilderness. Consequently, no major roads were built to enable easy access to the park. In fact, much of the park is accessible by hiking trail only, thus preserving the landscape much as it was before modern settlement of the West. North Cascades also was the first park to provide substantial buffer zones outside its boundary lines to maintain its remoteness. National parks, U.S.;North Cascades North Cascades National Park

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Although not focused specifically on North Cascades National Park, this work provides a good introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of the movement that gave birth to the park.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayes, Samuel P. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1984. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A good overview of the political hurdles faced by proponents of wilderness preservation, with a lengthy overview of the establishment of North Cascades National Park.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Louter, David. Contested Terrain: North Cascades National Park Service Complex, an Administrative History. Seattle, Wash.: National Park Service, 1998. The best source for detailed information about the history behind the establishment of the park and its subsequent management. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luxenberg, Gretchen. Historic Resource Study: North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Seattle, Wash.: National Park Service, 1986. The first comprehensive history of the park; covers its “prehistory” as well.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manning, Harvey. The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1969. A classic book on the North Cascades region, with many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellars, Richard W. Preserving Nature in the National Parks. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A more general book about the role of national parks in wilderness preservation, with some mention of North Cascades National Park.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial Is Completed

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

Congress Passes the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act

Udall Publishes The Quiet Crisis

Controversial Glen Canyon Dam Is Completed

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

Wilderness Act Is Passed

Categories: History