Even in the remote West, growth happens

  • Stehekin, Washington

    Diane Sylvain
  • The Lady of the Lake II docked at Stehekin on Lake Chelan

    Mike Bonnicksen photo

STEHEKIN, Wash. - Tucked into a narrow mountain valley on the shore of Lake Chelan is a village so small it barely qualifies for the state map. A single phone serves its 70 residents, no roads lead here and only a ferry links Stehekin with the nearest grocery store in the small city of Chelan, Wash., 52 miles "downlake."

Little has changed since miners and trappers settled here just before the turn of the century. For that reason it has become a summer destination, known for its charming clapboard homes and stupendous views of the surrounding 62,000-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. A devoted corps of visitors and some landowners even say Stehekin is a living model of the past, one that ought to be preserved and tended as carefully as a Japanese Zen garden.

Here, where the high country doesn't open up until after the 4th of July, employment is oriented toward summer visitors. Residents work as outfitters and run the hotel, restaurants and small bakeries. Carpenters help summer residents remodel or maintain their rustic cabins. In winter, locals plow access roads and lanes. The Park Service numbers 10 career employees and four seasonal employees in winter; in summer, the permanent staff expands to 12, the seasonal to 27.

With the 1990s, however, the first considerable change descended on this 459-acre island of private land. Locals installed a phone just outside the public showerhouse and laundry. A few new homes appeared, too. In 1994, a Spokane, Wash., physician unveiled plans to build vacation homes on 27 steep and rocky lakeside acres on Logger's Point. Now, the village from the past is embroiled in a 1990s-style debate over growth as contentious as any in the West.

Bill Stifter's plans call for 13 "cabin-style" condominiums in addition to a house located prominently on the point, along with a 20-slip dock, a sophisticated system of pumps to transport sewage to level ground uphill and an electric tram to carry residents over a rocky 30-degree slope between the road and the condominiums. Stifter says his development has been carefully designed. Few trees will be cut, and the planned homes are 25 feet tall and occupy no more than 1,200 square feet on the ground.

Stifter won approval from Chelan County even though many locals and the Park Service say his development clashes with the Stehekin they're trying to preserve.

"We didn't feel that his plans as laid out were in keeping with the nature and scale of Stehekin," says Phil Campbell of the National Park Service in Chelan, Wash.

The Park Service claims the development would instantly boost the number of homeowners in the valley, straining the town's sole source of electricity: a small hydropower plant. And while Stifter did develop a detailed plan to pump sewage uphill and limit the number of cars at the site, critics insist such complicated measures are proof that the property shouldn't be developed in the first place.

The Park Service has proposed a land swap to keep the hillside condominiums out of Stehekin. The terms are now under negotiation and haven't been announced, but under the proposal the Park Service would trade public land in the Stehekin Valley and an undisclosed amount of cash for most of the Logger's Point property. Appraised at $120,000 in the 1980s, when the Park Service tried to buy the land from a previous owner, Logger's Point now carries a hefty price tag: It is appraised at more than $1 million.

A new concern

Although the town has a long history of defending its identity, past battles weren't waged against private developers: The Park Service was the target. Since the federal agency created the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area in 1968, and began purchasing private inholdings, many residents have tried to fend off what they call a "land grab" by the federal government. It has fueled a property-rights debate in the valley that drew a visit from U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich last summer.

"The Park Service has never been welcomed with open arms in Stehekin," says Rick Wagner of the Park Service office in Seattle, who has negotiated the purchase of some of the 1,000 acres of Stehekin land bought by the agency.

Now, say critics such as Sandy Walker, a Stehekin landowner from California, the Park Service isn't doing enough to protect the valley. He says one of the proposed land-trade sites is habitat for the northern spotted owl, so he's asking the Park Service to instead buy the hillside development rights from Stifter.

The Park Service says it can do little more than what it has proposed. Legislation stipulates that the agency can purchase inholdings only from willing sellers, and its Land and Water Conservation Fund allocation from Congress is nearly spent.

"Those are two pretty big obstacles," says Park Superintendent Bill Paleck. "The critics who object in principle are very hard to please. The range of views literally run from those who would have us buy every acre in the valley to those who would have us sell back every single acre that we purchased."

The recreation area's two-year-old general management plan suggests land trades are a suitable tool for preserving parts of the Stehekin Valley, Paleck says, and a trade completed in October is a successful example. In that deal, a 20-acre patented mining claim in a nearby wilderness was traded for 5.5 acres of public land protected by a conservation easement in the Stehekin Valley.

For some, any change is unwelcome, and Carolyn McConnell, a member of the group Stehekin Alert, fears the beloved village where her mother was born is irrevocably changing.

"What it promised to be is a community in harmony with nature," she says. "And we're at the turning point."

Dustin Solberg is an HCN assistant editor. Freelancer Karen Olson contributed to this report.

You can contact ...

* Bill Paleck, Superintendent, North Cascades National Park and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, 2105 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284-9394 (360/856-5700, ext. 351);

* Stehekin Alert, P.O. Box 303, Stehekin, WA 98852.

High Country News Classifieds