Probing – 23 A World-class Wonder

Probing the Depths of Crater Lake: A Century of Scientific Research by Douglas Larson

 Crater Lake is a world-class natural wonder, a national treasure, and Oregon’s crown jewel of the Cascades. The pollution of this unique body of water with unknown quantities of untreated sewage was clearly not the legacy that Americans had in mind nearly a century ago when the lake became a national park. In July 1967, when I first descended into the caldera to study Crater Lake, I did so believing that the lake was in good hands with the National Park Service. Like most Americans, I had grown up with the notion that national parks were being protected and preserved at all costs. After all, it is the stated objective of the National Park Service to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” [emphasis added].

Twenty years later, when I made my final ascent up the caldera wall after my last day of research on Crater Lake, my views had changed. As I reflect on my long experience there, I am constantly struck by two perplexing questions: Why did the Park Service wait eighty years before initiating a lake-monitoring program that could alert officials to possible degradation resulting from human encroachment? And why did the Park Service delay action for nearly fifteen years before correcting the sewage problem, all the while either ignoring it or denying that it existed?

In July 1978, ranger-naturalist Seth Phalen operates a three-horsepower outboard motor on the boat the author used between 1978 and 1981 to study Crater Lake. A small plankton net hangs from the wooden winch in the center of the boat. Photo courtesy of D. W. Larson

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