WASHINGTON — The mountain lakes in the backcounty of Washington state's North Cascades National Park are still covered in ice. The thaw usually doesn't come until early July. This year, however, a deadline comes along with the thaw.
Unless Congress acts, the lakes won't be stocked by volunteers racing the clock through the wilderness with 5-gallon plastic containers of rainbow, cutthroat and golden trout strapped on their backs.
The size of Rhode Island, the North Cascades is the only national park where fish are still planted. The lakes, many carved out by glaciers and fed by cold glacial water, didn't have fish in them until the planting started roughly a century ago.
National Park Service rules prohibit the introduction of non-native species, and it will start enforcing them July 1 in the North Cascades.
"We are the last park," said Chip Jenkins, the park's superintendent. "If we are to continue to do something unique, Congress will have to authorize it."
The dispute is just the latest flash point in the broader debate between those who think that the national parks and wilderness should remain pristine and untouched by humans and those who think that increased recreational opportunities should be allowed as long as they don't harm the environment.
Washington state Rep. Doc Hastings, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, has introduced legislation to allow planting in the North Cascades to continue. He has support from virtually all the state's delegation in the House of Representatives, including leading Democrats. Hastings said he hoped that his bill would pass the full House in the week after Congress returned from its Memorial Day recess. Similar legislation passed the House last year but went nowhere in the Senate.
Though Hastings said Washington state's senators, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, supported his measure, they haven't introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Murray's and Cantwell's offices declined to comment. Cantwell is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would have jurisdiction.
"If the (July 1) deadline helps pass it, I have no trouble with that," Hastings said, "but the problem in the Senate is finding time to do it. Maybe the deadline will help with that."
The controversy has been brewing since the park was created in 1968. At one point, the dispute grew so heated that the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife threatened to "bomb" the lakes with fish from airplanes and the National Park Service threatened to arrest anyone involved.
The park complex, which straddles the Cascades along the Canadian border north of Seattle, includes the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The lakes, some at altitudes approaching 7,000 feet, aren't sterile and contain phytoplankton, zooplankton, aquatic insects and amphibians. They were naturally fishless because the fish couldn't migrate up the rugged streams that serve as the outlets for the lakes.
Today, 1,000 to 1,500 people fish the lakes regularly.
Sandy McKean, a past president of Washington Trail Blazers, a group that supports alpine fishing, has hauled fish to the lakes in the North Cascades for 15 years. He said that some members of the group had been doing it for 50 years.
McKean said the National Park Service set the July 1 deadline because it was worried it might get sued if the planting continued without congressional authorization. He added that the national parks are filled with trails and people climb rocks, gather mushrooms, view birds and wildflowers, and ride horses.
"I heard one person say a fish rising on a lake spoiled his wilderness experience," McKean said. "You could put a fence up around the park with a sign that says 'Humans Keep Out,' but no one wants that."
Opponents say McKean and his group are "elite" fishermen and the park service ought to ban the stocking program outright.
"This is a national park," said Dave Fluharty, a board member of the North Cascades Conservation Council. "There are 400 other lakes they could be fishing in. The lakes in the park need to be left alone."
Backers of fish planting say that in congressional testimony when the park was being authorized, the park service director at the time, George Hartzog, promised that the stocking program would continue. Jenkins and others say the record is far from definitive and that Hartzog said different things at different times.
"The history is a little convoluted," Jenkins said.
The planting was allowed to continue until 1988, when new park service policies banned the planting of non-native species. Planting programs at national parks such as Yosemite and Mount Rainier were eliminated. It was allowed to continue in the North Cascades while the park service conducted an environmental review and came up with a management plan for the lakes.
Twenty years later, researchers concluded that planted fish could harm aquatic organisms, but that if low numbers of fish that can't reproduce were planted the ecological impacts would be undetectable.
The park service said the planting of non-native, non-reproducing fish could continue in 42 of the 91 lakes that had been previously stocked, but only if Congress authorized it by July 1.
Fish in the other lakes would be allowed to die off naturally or, in two instances, killed off using natural toxins, because the fish could threaten downstream populations of endangered bull trout.
State officials charged that the park service was passing the buck because it didn't want to deal with a controversial issue.
"We think the National Park Service has the power they need to continue the stocking program," said Bob Everitt, the director of the northwest region of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The requirement from congressional authorization is something they want to overcome internal hurdles."
The state would run the stocking program, supplying fish from state hatcheries. Volunteers would continue doing the planting.
Jenkins said the July 1 deadline wasn't arbitrary and wasn't picked to put pressure on anyone.
"That's generally when ice-out occurs and stocking begins," he said. "This has been an issue for 20 years, and it's hard to see it as a rush. We don't have the legal authority to continue this. It's a political decision, and it is time to resolve it."
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