"You think you're in the national park but you're in forest lands," or in the Ross Lake National Recreation area, said Phil Zalesky, a retired Everett schoolteacher and longtime conservationist.
Zalesky and his wife, Laura, both 88, live in Mill Creek. They were part of the movement that created the park in the 1960s. Now, they and others hope to increase the visibility and popularity of the park by making it bigger. Adding large areas into the park will provide the land with greater protection for the environment as well.
The park covers more than 500,000 acres of rugged territory in Skagit and Whatcom counties. The American Alps Legacy proposal would enlarge it by roughly one-half*, adding 237,702 acres to the total.
About 75 percent of the areas proposed for expansion were included in the original park plan in the 1960s before it was scaled back by Congress, said Jim Davis of Bellingham, executive director of the American Alps Legacy project.
Old-growth forest, headwaters of the Skagit and Nooksack rivers, and elk, salmon, mountain goats, wolverines, and even some gray wolves and grizzly bears would benefit from the added level of protection afforded by a national park, proponents say.
Hunting, mining and logging are prohibited in the park but not on national forest lands, which comprise most of the proposed additions.
Hunting is allowed in the Ross Lake recreation area, most of which would become part of the park.
Proponents say the expansion also could help bring more people to the park, which in turn could help local merchants.
At least one businessman is skeptical.
Don Clark, who runs the Skagit River Resort near Rockport, says the plan will eliminate important hunting areas and won't bring the economic benefits promised.
It's hoped that park status could eventually translate into more amenities such as visitor centers, interpretive centers, trails and more parking and campgrounds.
Because of the shrinking federal budget there won't be any money for these projects, Clark said. "There's no funding to convert this from an empty promise to a change in our area there," he said.
The list of people who have signed onto American Alps proposal reads like a who's who of the Northwest environmental movement: well-known mountain climbers Jim Whitaker and Jim Wickwire; former Sierra Club director Mike McCloskey; and Polly Dyer, who was involved in the original movement for the park, along with the Zeleskys. Former Gov. Dan Evans is on the group's advisory board.
The American Alps website lists more than 20 organizations, most of them environmental groups, as supporting the plan. The North Cascades mountains often have been referred to as the "American Alps" because of their steep, snowcapped terrain.
The movement to expand the park was started about three years ago by members of the North Cascades Conservation Council, Davis said. The Zeleskys helped establish the group in 1957 and they still serve on its board of directors.
North Cascades National Park is divided into two halves, northern and southern, with parts of the recreation area and national forest in between.
The plan would convert 143,058 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and 94,644 acres of the Ross Lake recreation area into national park land. Ross and Diablo lakes and their shorelines would remain in the recreation area, in deference to Seattle City Light operations in the area. The utility runs three dams on the Skagit River.
Currently, Highway 20 runs between the two halves of the park. The American Alps plan would bring the park to the highway.
Short trails could be added that would increase access to beautiful areas not currently in the park, with minimal effect on the environment, Davis said.
Most of the park, because of its steep terrain, is reachable only by hardy backpackers, he said. More gateway-type signs could be added to the highway to let people know they're in the park.
"Visitation is very low and very few people actually stay long enough to spend money," Davis said.
North Cascades is the second-least visited of the 58 national parks in the United States, according to Ranger Charles Beall, acting superintendent for the park. Only Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior, draws fewer visitors per year, he said.
In 2011, North Cascades National Park had 19,208 visitors, according to National Park statistics. The Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, one of the most visited parks, had more than 15 million. Olympic National Park had nearly 3 million.
On the downside for some visitors, dogs are prohibited in most national parks, as is gathering of plants such as mushrooms or wildflowers.
Clark says there's another problem.
In a separate proposal, Seattle City Light, with input from the National Park Service, is studying ways to provide more services for tourists in Newhalem, a City Light company town that is the closest village to the national park. Restaurants and hotels in Newhalem could take money away from businesses down the road in Marblemount and Rockport, canceling any economic benefit from expanding the park, Clark said.
Marshall Cooper, owner of the Buffalo Run Inn in Marblemount, also is concerned about the City Light project but favors expanding the park. "The problem is we have a great pristine park up here, but it's only accessible to hikers and people who are physically fit who can get up into the mountains. It would be nice if we had a little more access to the park and people could get in and see a little more of the beauty," he said.
"I know they want to make some more modern entrance gates so it looks more like a park. Most people don't even know they're in the damn park when they're in the park."
Chip Jenkins, deputy director of the Pacific Northwest region for the national park system and until recently the North Cascades park superintendent, said about 1 million people drive over Washington Pass on Highway 20 every year -- but many of them do not stop.
Jenkins and Davis both say there would be enough visitors for everyone.
"We're just trying to get a higher percentage of those million people to stop," Jenkins said.
Davis said proponents don't expect to create major changes overnight, and that improvements will have to be made over a period of years.
Jenkins said that while the park service's budget has been cut back, it's in better shape than that of the Forest Service.
Still, the money situation is very uncertain, he said.
"It is not unusual that parks can be created and expanded and initially no additional funding comes from that. Eventually Congress does provide funding for those, but we're also in a really different time," he said.
Davis said the biggest ticket items would come in the form of two new visitor centers, costing between $5 million and $8 million apiece.
Another reason Clark opposes the expansion plan is because of the effect it could have on hunting. He said many people in the economically depressed area depend on hunting and gathering.
Davis said the boundaries for the expansion plan were drawn around the most popular hunting areas.
Clark disagrees. "The local communities will suffer; they will be arrested for harvesting in their back yard," he said.
The plan originally included some other areas, including an upper area of the Methow Valley just east of the North Cascades, but this met some opposition and the plan was scaled back, Davis said.
The American Alps group has held more than 150 meetings in the past three years and made 30 group presentations on the plan, he said.
The expansion plan would have to be approved by Congress and signed by the president. To get the park approved in the 1960s, proponents had a champion in Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, though they had to work on him for awhile, Phil Zalesky said.
The American Alps group has spoken with U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen.
Spokespeople for Cantwell and Larsen were non-committal and said the senator and congressman were waiting for the group to gather more support for the project. Murray's office had no immediate comment.
Davis points out that the Snohomish, King and Whatcom county councils have approved resolutions supporting the plan. The Skagit Board of Commissioners* has yet to make a statement either way, he said.
The Zaleskys would love to see the expansion approved in their lifetime.
Beginning in the 1950s, they campaigned to create a wilderness area surrounding Glacier Peak. Then, in the '60s, other environmentalists convinced them that a national park would be easier to get done politically and would offer more protection for the area.
The park was approved in 1968, but the originally proposed areas were scaled back.
The Zeleskys were told the reductions were due to the influence of the logging industry.
While this was disappointing, "we decided we better not fight it and try to get the rest in the future," Phil Zalesky said.
"It took 10 years to get the park," Laura Zelesky said. "So I guess it will take 44 years to get the rest of it."
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.
* Correction, August 6, 2012: This story originally included incorrect figures for how much the park would grow.
*The Skagit County Board of Commissioners was originally incorrectly named in this story.
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