High above the Suiattle River valley, the Miners Ridge fire lookout sits on stilts at the western edge of its namesake. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

High above the Suiattle River valley, the Miners Ridge fire lookout sits on stilts at the western edge of its namesake. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

An open-pit mine that wasn’t: Ridge near Glacier Peak spared

A book by professor from Marysville chronicles the 1960s environmental battle over a planned copper mine.

It has an intriguing title, “An Open Pit Visible from the Moon.” The new book by history professor and Marysville native Adam Sowards tells of a conservation battle waged a half-century ago. Ground zero in that fight to stop a copper mine was a remote place of beauty in Snohomish County.

Miners Ridge is east of Darrington and south of North Cascades National Park, in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. In 1966, just two years after Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the Kennecott Copper Corporation announced it intended to build an open-pit mine there.

“I think it was really well known in the late 1960s, but it had fallen out of collective memory,” Sowards, who teaches at the University of Idaho, said about the struggle that pitted environmental activists against business interests.

In the end, although Kennecott had every legal right to dig that pit — described by foes as nearly seven football fields wide and deep enough to contain the Space Needle — it did not happen. Although the company had patented mining claims in the 1950s and explored the area in the ’60s, the author credits outspoken foes of the mine for what is there today, unspoiled land.

Plummer Mountain, northeast of Glacier Peak, was the target for the copper it contained, Sowards wrote.

The fight was chronicled in one section of a previous book by John McPhee, “Encounters With the Archdruid,” which covers environmentalist David Brower’s conflicts with a mineral engineer.

Among activists whose views won out were towering figures in the environmental movement, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who led a protest hike, and Brock Evans, then Northwest representative of the Sierra Club.

Lesser known people, too, cared deeply about what would become of a place revered as one of the nation’s most spectacular.

Fred Darvill, a doctor from Mount Vernon, bought Kennecott stock so he could attend a shareholders meeting to show pictures of Glacier Peak and Image Lake. “He went to talk about beauty,” Sowards said. And an Oberlin College student, Benjamin Shaine, wrote a senior honors thesis about the issue, and worked to get scientists’ signatures on a petition presented to Kennecott executives.

Adam Sowards, a University of Idaho professor and graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School, is the author of “An Open Pit Visible from the Moon,” about the Kennecott Corporation’s push to build a copper mine in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in the 1960s. (University of Idaho)

Adam Sowards, a University of Idaho professor and graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School, is the author of “An Open Pit Visible from the Moon,” about the Kennecott Corporation’s push to build a copper mine in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in the 1960s. (University of Idaho)

A 1991 graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School, the 46-year-old Sowards grew up on a farm where his family raised cows. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at University of Puget Sound and graduate degrees from Arizona State University. He’s been at the University of Idaho 17 years, focusing on environmental history and the American West. Earlier, he taught at Everett and Shoreline community colleges.

Sowards is also the author of “The Environmental Justice: William O. Douglas and American Conservation,” and the editor of “Idaho’s Place: A New History of the Gem State.”

His boyhood home north of Marysville offered scenic views of the Cascades. In the 1960s, those mountains were luring a new generation of wilderness enthusiasts, but also drawing the attention of Kennecott. By the 1950s, the company was the nation’s largest copper producer.

Published this month by the University of Oklahoma Press, his book grew from an essay he wrote for a previous volume, “The Nature of Hope: Grassroots Organizing, Environmental Justice and Political Change,” edited by Char Miller and Jeff Crane.

“Since the nineteenth century, law had acknowledged mining as the highest use on public lands,” he wrote in that essay. “To Northwest conservationists, Miners Ridge, Glacier Peak and the North Cascades mattered a great deal. This was a protected landscape and a personal one.”

Talking about the issue just after Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, Sowards hesitated to call the story one of good versus evil.

“It’s more complicated than that. I don’t want to say anyone is evil,” he said.

“An Open Pit Visible from the Moon,” by University of Idaho professor and Marysville Pilchuck High School graduate Adam Sowards, tells of a 1960s fight over a company’s plan to build copper mine in the north Cascades.

“An Open Pit Visible from the Moon,” by University of Idaho professor and Marysville Pilchuck High School graduate Adam Sowards, tells of a 1960s fight over a company’s plan to build copper mine in the north Cascades.

His book’s subtitle is “The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest.”

“Every side sees itself reaching toward public interest. Kennecott’s argument was weaker,” Sowards said. “This campaign was a test for everyone involved.”

Most significantly, it was the first test of a mining provision of the Wilderness Act passed in 1964. The law allowed prospecting in designated areas to continue for 20 years. But the will of the people overcame that power.

Sowards wrote that “the mining exception made what happened at Miners Ridge important, controversial, and, above all, historic.”

Could that open pit have been seen from the moon? The question gets an answer, of sorts, in Sowards’ introduction, titled “The Telescope.”

It was Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club in the late 1960s, who had likened the copper operation he was fighting to a man-made crater “so large it would be visible from the moon.” The author McPhee countered that the claim was exaggerated.

Sowards’ book notes that the Sierra Club chief “admitted that seeing the mine from the moon would require ‘a small telescope.’”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

The book

Adam Sowers’ new book, “An Open Pit Visible from the Moon,” is available on Amazon and at the University of Oklahoma Press: oupress.com/books/15458872/an-open-pit-visible-from-the-moon

Talk to us

More in Local News

Clyde Shavers, left, and Greg Gilday.
Shavers wins by narrow margin as Dems flip seat in 10th District

Democrat Clyde Shavers won by 211 votes against incumbent state Rep. Greg Gilday. It’s close enough for a recount.

Arlington
Edmonds man hospitalized after shooting in Arlington

The man, 30, was found Monday night in the 500 block of N. Macleod Avenue after reports of an assault.

Lisa Lefeber, CEO of the Port of Everett, speaks to a crowd while in front of a sign celebrating the opening of the new Norton Terminal on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, at the Port of Everett in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Port of Everett christens new Norton cargo terminal

The $40 million terminal took two years to complete and doubles the port’s storage capacity.

Permit tech Sheyenne Morton and residential plan reviewer Ryan Hammer help a general contractor with some permit work at the Everett Public Works permit office Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Budget dips, but Everett city union workers in line for 7.5% pay bump

The city’s general government fund could drop $1 million. City leaders say the current path is not sustainable.

Snow lingered outside the office building of Receivables Performance Management on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood data breach exposed sensitive info for 3.7 million across US

Lawsuits allege lax security at a debt collection agency led to the attack. It wasn’t announced for over a year.

The Washington State Patrol was investigating a fatal crash involving multiple vehicles Thursday on Highway 530 near Oso. (Washington State Patrol)
1 killed, 1 injured in crash east of Arlington

There was no detour for several hours Thursday afternoon as detectives investigated the four-vehicle collision.

Teen killed in Everett crash, shooting identified

No arrests have been made in the Friday night killing of 17-year-old Gabriel Kartak, of Seattle.

The crab doughnut at Market in Edmonds is a strange delight, with a sweet and dense glazed doughnut topped with bright and briny dungeness crab salad, nutty browned butter and a shower of smoky bacon bits. (Taylor Goebel / The Herald)
This idyllic dining destination is right in Snohomish County

Edmonds boasts fresh seafood, Caribbean-inspired sandwiches, artisan breads, cocktails and more.

Marysville Jail (City of Marysville)
Man with hepatitis C accused of spitting on Marysville jail staff

Hepatitis C is usually spread through blood. The suspect, 28, faces allegations of exposing the officers to a contagious disease.

Most Read