Chapter 1. Bob Marshall and a Roadless Vision
The North Cascades are breathtaking. Steep slopes with crags and cliffs hanging everywhere. Glaciers clinging in bowls near jagged ridgelines. Insistent rivers pushing downward toward the Salish Sea. Spend any time with the North Cascades and you’re likely to be moved.
Bob Marshall was.
A forester by training and socialist by conviction, Robert Marshall (1901-1939) helped make wilderness a public political cause and a policy option in the Forest Service. And the North Cascades drew his attention at a key moment.
In 1935, Marshall and a few others formed the Wilderness Society and dedicated the new organization to keeping tracts of federal land free of roads and motors. As all good organizations do, the Wilderness Society launched a newsletter called The Living Wilderness. In its inaugural issue, a short article appeared titled, “Three Great Western Wildernesses: What Must be Done to Save Them?.” In it, Marshall made the case for the North Cascades’ protection.
Marshall held freedom dear. If he could not get away from others and enjoy the freedom of a long hike in the western mountains—he was famous for hiking twenty, thirty, even forty miles a day—he could not be satisfied. This type of freedom required planning and protection, because in the 1930s, roads crisscrossed the countryside with multiplying speed.
The US Forest Service—Marshall’s employer most of his career—controlled most of the North Cascades. A portion of these national forests were managed for recreation, not commercial timber harvest. The year before Marshall’s article, in fact, nearly one million acres, snug up against the Canadian border, had been set into a “primitive area.” This pleased Marshall, but he would have been happier if the Forest Service protected the area further south, too. Marshall looked at a map and saw a vast area without roads—one of the last such expanses—that might stay that way.
The section to the south—about 30 miles east to west and 40 miles north to south—covered the Cascades crest like a blanket. Marshall told readers of The Living Wilderness that this should be “kept free from all mechanical developments.” Scrap the plans for a state highway to bisect the mountain range, he urged. No need for the truck trails the Forest Service envisioned, either.
Here’s a key passage from his plea:
It is important that, in setting this backbone of the Northern Cascades aside as a wilderness area to preserve for wilderness travel one of the most stupenduously [sic] scenic areas in the United States, millions of people who do not care for, or are unable to enjoy, wilderness travel should not be deprived of the possibility of seeing the region. On the other hand, it is even more important that no unfair monopoly of outstandingly beautiful Northern Cascade scenery be given to the motorist.
The perspective is straightforward enough. But the dilemma it touches on reaches to the very nature of the American system of government. What is the relationship between majoritarian and minoritarian values?
Marshall, the lover of freedom, came down on the side of protecting minority rights. This may be an unsurprising position for the son of a prominent Jewish attorney who took on many civil rights causes, or as the author of an article called “The Wilderness as a Minority Right” that he published in the Forest Service Bulletin in 1928.
Marshall took pains to point out all the gorgeous mountain scenery people could drive to in the Cascades. Two highways crossed the range not far to the south of the North Cascades. And beyond that, Mount Rainier National Park welcomed cars—in fact, it had been the first national park to officially welcome them.
But this block of the North Cascades needed to remain open—without cars, without timber operations, without mines. (I suppose his critics would have seen that as “closed.”)
The majority who preferred modern travel or who could not participate in wilderness excursions lost out, were excluded, lost the democratic contest. But Marshall insisted, “it is even more important that no unfair monopoly of outstandingly beautiful Northern Cascade scenery be given to the motorist.”
Marshall made his point.
Some agreed; others didn’t. That happens in a democracy.
(A few years later, in 1939, Marshall hiked across his beloved North Cascades near Glacier Peak. He fell ill just after the hike and died, 38 years old. Marshall provided an expansive vision for wilderness preservation in the North Cascades, a plan other conservationists could follow: a vast roadless wilderness area.)
Compromises—also central to democratic governance—were necessary to move toward Marshall’s vision. Stopping the cross-mountain road proved impossible, for instance. How often do you stop a road that large?
Soon, a more pressing issue arose: how do you stop a mine?