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“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  – John Muir, “Our National Parks,” 1901

When the federal government shut down for 16 days last October, Americans seemed to miss one thing most of all: visiting their national parks. Several states even put up big money to reopen their parks.

Washington state’s national parks encompass the natural treasures that define this place. Mount Rainier is our state’s icon, on our license plates. North Cascades National Park takes in some of our most rugged wilderness. Olympic National Park’s snow-mantled mountains, moss-dripping rain forests and wild ocean beaches showcase the state’s natural diversity.

But the shutdown also spotlighted the difficulties national parks face in times of uncertain funding, including a nationwide maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion.

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For parks such as 115-year-old Mount Rainier, which represents some $220 million of that backlog, that’s just the start of the challenges to keeping the gates open.

Rivers rise, rocks fall

Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Randy King stood on the shoulder of the Nisqually to Paradise Road recently, looked out over the rock-strewn riverbed where the Nisqually Glacier gives its lifeblood to the Nisqually River, and told of one of his park’s bigger challenges: The riverbeds keep rising.

“This riverbed has risen about 3 feet over a decade … I’ve seen water flow over this road right here,” King said.

Parks such as Rainier are like an ant under a magnifying glass when it comes to climate change, as the mountain’s 26 melting glaciers deposit an ever-growing slurry of dirt, rock and gravel into six major river systems.

That creates special demands on park managers: In the workaday world, how many other employers need their own fluvial geomorphologist? That’s the job title for Rainier-based Paul Kennard, who studies how rivers respond to natural and human-induced changes in the region’s national parks.

Kennard says areas of the Nisqually’s riverbed have risen more than 30 feet in the past century. That contributed to the devastating 2006 flooding that obliterated Sunshine Point Campground and closed the park’s busiest entrance road for months. Roads that were 20 to 30 feet above rivers when built are now 10 to 20 feet below rivers.

“Our 100-year floods are happening about every 17 years now,” Deputy Superintendent Tracy Swartout said.

The park must manage roads, bridges and other infrastructure dating to as far back as the 1890s, in a delicate natural environment that includes one of the snowier places on Earth. And much of it is in a carefully regulated National Historic Landmark District that received 1.7 million visitors last year to its 117 miles of roads, 264 miles of trails and 480 campsites.

“It’s a recipe for fun,” Swartout said, tongue firmly in cheek.

Road work represents more than half of the deferred-maintenance bill at Mount Rainier, even after an ongoing $33.1 million, four-year project to rebuild all 17.6 miles of the Nisqually to Paradise Road.

Floods aren’t the only natural wonder to make park managers grumble. In May, about 10,000 cubic feet of VW Beetle-sized rocks plummeted 1,300 feet off Mount Wow, closing the park’s Westside Road for weeks. One boulder gouged a 3-foot-deep crater in the roadbed. Another made scrap metal of a parked pickup belonging to hikers.

Cleaning up fallen rocks is just one more unplanned strain on the park’s operating budget, King says. Every spring, he says, “There’s always something,” from road damage to failed culverts. “You get out and see what nature left you.”

Safety first

Costs are billed in emotion, too. Tragedy has pummeled the Mount Rainier park staff in recent years, first with the shooting on New Year’s Day 2012 of Ranger Margaret Anderson, killed by a troubled young veteran who came to the park with multiple weapons. That was followed six months later by the death of a mountain ranger who fell during a rescue, and more recently, at the end of May, with the loss on Liberty Ridge of six climbers who apparently tumbled 3,300 feet in the park’s worst climbing mishap since 1981.

Rainier’s proximity to Puget Sound population centers requires that more park resources be devoted to law enforcement, with 13 year-round commissioned law-enforcement rangers and a half-dozen more in summer, according to Chief Ranger Chuck Young.

Rangers now wear bulletproof vests and engage in “active shooter” training. “When I came into the service we didn’t train for that sort of thing, but now we do,” said Young, a 37-year veteran of the park service.

“It takes a tremendous investment in time and money,” Superintendent King said.

Rainier’s 2014 funding is rosier than last year, when sequestration forced a 5 percent across-the-board cut throughout the park service. But over the last five years, Rainier’s budget growth has lagged behind inflation.

For the buildup of front-country, gun-carrying rangers, there are trade-offs. Young said the park is down a couple of backcountry rangers this summer. Those staffers — whose duties range from assisting injured hikers to helping campers keep food from bears — are less likely to be missed by the majority of park patrons who drive to Paradise or Sunrise. Maintenance has been reduced as well.

“The park service does a great job at sort of hiding the cuts they’re actually facing, said David Graves, Northwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, a leading parks-advocacy group that also serves as something of a watchdog for the National Park Service.

So while the handsome new (in 2008) visitor center at Paradise is a model public facility and shiny wood floors reflect your face at Paradise Inn, some classic old buildings go unpainted and backcountry hikers may encounter crumbling, at times overflowing, privies that make nobody proud.

Rescue dramas

Last year’s 45 major search-and-rescue missions in Mount Rainier National Park cost $150,000, said Young, calling it “an extremely important, high-risk and high-stakes part of what we do.”

It’s not all high-glacier work. Tom Luthy, of Bellevue, a retired Weyerhaeuser executive, became a special fan of the park’s wilderness rangers when they helped evacuate his wife after she suffered tachycardia during a 2012 hike on the Glacier Basin trail. Rangers with a balloon-tired gurney wheeled her 2.5 miles to where an ambulance waited.

“What impressed me was the all-hands-on-deck approach of the national-park people — I can’t speak too highly of how organized and efficient and even caring they were,” said Luthy, who discovered Mount Rainier as a young man visiting from New Jersey and has “had a love affair with the mountain ever since.”

Luthy showed his appreciation through a donation to Washington’s National Parks Fund (WNPF), a nonprofit that was the 1990s brainchild of park supporters including former Washington Gov. and Sen. Dan Evans. WNPF channels donations to underfunded needs in all the state’s national parks, such as $18,000 last year to support Rainier’s Meadow Rover program, helping to preserve fragile wildflower meadows at Sunrise and Paradise. Gifts to Rainier National Park totaled $215,149 in 2012-2013.

Young said rescue efforts especially depend on donations and volunteers such as search-and-rescue groups from throughout Puget Sound. “We couldn’t do it without these volunteers, we just couldn’t.”

Meeting their mission

Each of Washington’s three biggest national parks face challenges from what North Cascades National Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich calls years of “general budget erosion.”

Because of tight money, her park’s six car campgrounds and its main visitor center opened two weeks later than usual in May. Olympic National Park is doing less snowplowing, instead waiting for snowmelt to open high routes such as Deer Park Road.

And while watchdogs such as David Graves insist it’s not enough without added support from Congress, the parks are partnering more and more with other agencies or seeking volunteers or donations to pursue goals ranging from wildlife protection to youth engagement.

Olympic is trying to promote a healthy ecosystem by reintroducing the fisher, a member of the weasel family that disappeared from the state after over-trapping.

The project might be a bellwether for how complicated such efforts can be. Studies began in the late 1990s, taking 10 years and involving agencies ranging from the state Department of Fish & Wildlife to every tribal commission on the Olympic Peninsula before biologists began to release 90 fishers imported from British Columbia in 2008.

“I’m cautiously optimistic” that repopulation is succeeding, said Patti Happe, wildlife branch chief for Olympic. Tracking collars have shown “one out at Neah Bay, one at Ocean Shores and at all points in between.” The project relies in part on monitors hired through a grant from WNPF.

North Cascades is a model for other parks with its youth engagement, moving into high gear in 2006 in partnership with North Cascades Institute, which brings hundreds of young people annually for its outdoor programs on Diablo Lake.

The park’s Pathways for Youth program has two objectives: to instill a love of the outdoors in teens who might not otherwise pull their noses away from a smartphone; and to help recruit youth of diverse backgrounds to the heavily white, middle-class corps of park rangers.

Last year, at least 2,500 youth took part in programs at North Cascades National Park, said Michael Brondi, the park’s youth-program coordinator.

“They’re encouraged to come fall in love with public lands,” he said.

The program isn’t a line item in any budget. Instead, it happens through a sort of cooperative alchemy between a range of public and private entities, from the 57-year-old Student Conservation Association to the U.S. Forest Service. It’s something of a model for how national parks can pursue goals in tougher times.

“The kids can be eaten by mosquitoes and have to use nasty pit toilets, but if they come away uninjured, many, many of them come through with the commitment to get back out there, and the conviction that outdoor activities compared with screen time are a fine thing,” said Brondi, a one-time logger. “Working with youth helps me maintain a very positive attitude toward the future.”

Brian J. Cantwell:

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