History, North Cascades

The trees that helped defeat a dam

In summer 1968, four backpackers crested Hannegan Pass, northeast of Mount Baker, and made their way through the Picket Range down Big Beaver Creek. The Pickets are widely regarded as some of the most intimidating mountains in the lower 48. Their sawtooth summits, with names like Mount Despair, Mount Terror, and Mount Fury, create an imposing “keep out” fence. Northwest mountaineering legend Fred Beckey called the range the “wildest and most unexplored region in the North Cascades.” But it’s possible to cross the Pickets by following the creeks that drain them, and that’s what the backpackers did.

Big Beaver Creek empties into Ross Lake, the 23-mile-long reservoir behind Ross Dam where it plugs the Skagit River as it turns west and heads toward Puget Sound. Ross Dam is the largest of three dams built between 1924 and 1949 that together form the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and provide power to the city of Seattle. As the backpackers made their way down Big Beaver Creek, following its opaque chalcedony water down a broad, gentle valley, they looked forward to catching a boat and heading downlake, then home to Seattle.

But about four miles before they reached the boat dock, they were astonished to find themselves walking through groves of gigantic Western redcedar trees. The towering trees were completely unexpected, clearly ancient, and graced the trail for more than a mile.

Giant cedars along Big Beaver Creek (Lauren Danner photo)
Giant cedars along Big Beaver Creek (Lauren Danner photo)

Marveling at the trees for the rest of the hike, the backpackers boarded the boat pleased with their trip. They had chosen the route randomly, simply because none had been there before. And those trees! Motoring into the dock at the end of the boat ride, they spotted workers scaling rocks near Ross Dam. The hikers asked the boat’s pilot what the workers were doing. “Getting ready to raise Ross Dam,” came the reply.

The quartet of backpackers were more than casual recreationists. All were central to the effort to create North Cascades National Park, legislation which in summer 1968 had passed the U.S. Senate but was languishing in the House of Representatives. The park bill created a two-unit national park bisected by a national recreation area that included Ross Lake within its boundaries (another national recreation area was attached to the southern park unit). Look at a park map today, and you will see the Ross Lake NRA boundary bulges out to include the lower six miles of Big Beaver Creek — including the cedar groves.

Detail of Ross Lake NRA map
Detail of Ross Lake NRA showing six-mile bulge encompassing Big Beaver valley’s ancient cedar groves (circled in orange). The national park is shaded lighter gray-green. (courtesy National Park Service)

In fact, the boundaries were drawn specifically to include land that would have been flooded by raising Ross Dam by 125 feet, raising the water level from 1600 to 1,725 feet elevation. When the dam was completed in 1949, Seattle City Light, the utility that runs the dams, had reached a tentative agreement with the province of British Columbia that would allow Ross Lake to flood north of the border. But within a few years of the dam’s construction, the province changed its mind. Controversy over creating North Cascades National Park further delayed the project. In 1967, though, the utility and the province negotiated a deal, and the park bill guaranteed the utility’s autonomy in administering the dams.

Until their backpacking trip, the conservationists regarded the High Ross Dam proposal as unlikely, something the park bill allowed but which they didn’t think would happen. That all changed on the downlake boat ride. Constant vigilance would be required to ensure High Ross Dam didn’t happen.

After President Johnson signed the bill creating North Cascades National Park into law in October 1968, opponents on both sides of the border stepped up efforts to derail High Ross Dam. Canadian conservationists created Run Out Skagit Spoilers (ROSS), concentrating on the prospective loss of fishing streams and the low mitigation payments negotiated with Seattle City Light as compensation for allowing the encroachment of the lake 12 miles into Canada. In Washington state, the North Cascades Conservation Council, formed in 1958 to pursue national park status for the region, focused on the loss of tributary valleys like Big Beaver Creek.

Two of its members, Joe and Margaret Miller, got permission from the new park’s superintendent to conduct an “ecosystem survey” of Big Beaver valley and document the old-growth cedar forest. Over two summers of study, the Millers found much more than 800-year-old trees. Summarizing their research in the 1972 The Mountaineer annual, they wrote, “It appears that Big Beaver valley may contain one of the most varied floras of any valley of similar size in the North Cascades.” This was partially due to geology. The valley’s U-shape — broad bottomlands and gently sloping sides, formed by a “particularly large and active glacier” grinding against exceptionally hard Skagit gneiss — is unusual in the North Cascades, where steep-sided, narrow-bottomed V-shaped valleys are the norm. Further, the Millers recognized the valley as an ecotone, a transition zone between different biological communities. In this case, the plants of the wet western side of the Cascade Range overlapped with those of the dry eastern side. The U shape of the valley and its near-flat grade for the five miles above the mouth of Big Beaver Creek allowed dry side plants to penetrate farther upvalley.

The cedars that had captivated the conservationists backpacking through the valley were indeed unique. Coming from the mouth of the creek, individual specimens appear immediately but sporadically. The real show begins at about three miles in, when groves of Western redcedars alternate with mixed stands of Western hemlock and Douglas-fir. The “islands” of cedars continue until mile six, where the valley turns north and its character changes. The Millers theorized the cedar groves represented an edaphic climax, an ecological concept meaning the trees and their environment were perfectly adapted to each other. The cedars would remain in perfect equilibrium with the soil, water, and topography around them as long as nothing disturbed them.

Margaret Miller measuring a giant cedar in Big Beaver valley
Margaret Miller measures a cedar in Big Beaver Valley (courtesy North Cascades Conservation Council digital archives)

Of course, an additional 125 feet of water would cause quite a disturbance. The Millers felt strongly that the highest value of Big Beaver valley was not economic; the increased power capacity of High Ross Dam and the recreation potential of Ross Lake did not outweigh the ecological importance of the “highly complex but unified” valley ecosystems. The National Park Service, they argued, should recognize the interpretive potential of the valley and manage it accordingly, making it a showpiece of outdoor education.

In October 1969, one of the backpackers who’d traveled the valley the previous summer spoke at a Seattle City Light budget hearing about the damage raising Ross Lake would cause. Harvey Manning was a sharp-tongued conservationist who became celebrated for his guidebooks and environmental writing; he was also co-editor of the North Cascades Conservation Council newsletter. “The flooding of the Big Beaver valley would be a recreational, scenic, and ecological tragedy of the highest magnitude,” he declaimed. “Our 2-day walk down the valley trail was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had in the North Cascades — and we had just spent a week among the great walls and glaciers of the Pickets.”

The fact remained, though, that much of the valley was within the boundaries of the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and the Park Service did not view NRAs as equal to national parks. Originally conceived as recreation zones around reservoirs created by dams, the agency considered national recreation areas to be of somewhat lower status and more flexible in potential uses than national parks. The North Cascades, however, had been conceptualized as a complex, to be managed holistically. Ross Lake NRA was seen as a “wilderness threshold,” a place to concentrate recreational activity away from the wilderness core in the two park units.

The National Park Service found itself in a difficult though not unfamiliar position. Its mandate required that it provide access to spectacular natural areas, a purpose ably served by Ross Lake NRA. Conservationists wanted the national recreation area held to the same wilderness standards as the national park, a stance the Park Service could not adopt because it traditionally emphasized recreation in NRAs. In the end, the park’s superintendent encouraged the Millers to conduct their study, but left it to the conservationists to make the case against raising the dam.

Exhibit opposing High Ross Dam
The North Cascades Conservation Council’s exhibit on the High Ross Dam proposal and the Millers’ Big Beaver valley ecosystem survey (courtesy North Cascades Conservation Council digital archives)

Joining forces with ROSS, the coalition of Canadian groups opposing the dam, conservationists attended meetings, spoke at hearings, and held rallies to protest raising Ross Dam. The controversy dragged into the early 1980s. By that time, the central issue had become whether the additional electricity generated by a higher dam was more important than the environmental impact on both sides of the border. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its Canadian counterpart ruled the project could proceed, but urged British Columbia and Seattle to reach a settlement. Stricter environmental rules and energy conservation measures initiated during the 1970s created more challenges to the project, and scenes of protesters lining the north shore of Ross Lake holding signs opposing “Yankee oppression,” encouraged neither tourism nor friendly international relations. In 1984, the city and the province reached a settlement in which the province agreed to sell its own power to the utility, effectively terminating the High Ross Dam project.

In 1991, the National Park Service designated part of the Big Beaver valley a Natural Research Area, implicitly acknowledging the Millers’ argument that its ecological value should be given precedence. The Millers’ “masterful” ecosystem survey is regarded as a model of “gathering evidence in the wild to preserve a great piece of nature,” well-known University of Washington botanist Arthur Kruckeberg said in 2007Today, the valley remains a popular destination for backpackers and boat campers on Ross Lake. Hikers come to see the cedars standing in graceful groves along the milky blue creek, as I did a few days ago.

Craning my neck to look at the stately trees, I thought about the part chance played in this story. The backpackers in 1968 randomly chose Big Beaver valley as their route to Ross Lake. Their encounter with the cedars was the catalyst for the Millers’ study of the valley and its extraordinarily complex systems of flora and fauna. By documenting the cedars, the Millers helped broaden the conversation about whether a higher dam was necessary or wise. The ancient trees have stood in Big Beaver valley for nearly a millennium, and by virtue of growing there they helped defeat High Ross Dam, thus ensuring that wilderness would be given equal billing with economics in Ross Lake National Recreation Area.

Cedar tree in Big Beaver valley, North Cascades
One of the towering cedars in Big Beaver valley. Some measure more than 15 feet in diameter. (Lauren Danner photo)

You can read the Millers’ original study and view a slideshow of historic photos related to the High Ross Dam controversy in the digital archives of the North Cascades Conservation Council. Click here and scroll down to the section titled “Big Beaver vs. High Ross — Images and Activism.”

2 thoughts on “The trees that helped defeat a dam

  1. I LOVE this story! You make the convoluted machinations of history so crisp and timely and riveting and accessible. Thank you, Millers!

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