08.24.18

She’s lethal, graceful, priceless. Don’t underestimate Mount Rainier

Taking a three-day, 34-mile backpacking trip on Mount Rainier may cause some people to question my idea of a fun summer vacation. Taking the trip during one of the region’s worst air-quality weeks on record may cause them to question my sanity.

One thing I hope they never question is the priceless value of the mountain – what Pierce County proudly claims as our mountain – and of the National Park Service as a whole.

While preparing to lead my daughters, ages 19 and 22, on a circuit of the Northern Loop trail last weekend, I admit some anxiety crept in. But it had little to do with wildfire smoke.

More nerve-wracking was that Rainier’s rivers and streams ran high and swift, and we had to traverse two crossings where two hikers died in the last month. 

The park ranger who issued our wilderness permit offered a stern warning about the west fork of the White River, where a footbridge washed out and a women was swept away trying to cross on July 25.

“They might not have a new bridge built before you reach the crossing,” he said. “The water can be knee deep at times. If you’re not comfortable, turn around.”

In the end, the rewards of our adventure surpassed the risks. The worst of the smoke lay below the 6,400-foot elevation at Sunrise trailhead and along most of our route. Smoke-averse visitors stayed away in droves, magnifying the sense of solitude.

We ate our fill of wild blueberries, enjoyed the graceful dive-bombing of butterflies, looked up in awe at the snouts of massive glaciers and made safe passage across raging waters.

Afterward, on the drive back down to smoky civilization, I flashed back to an old advertising campaign for Mastercard. It was called “Priceless,” and the narrator always delivered the corporate pitch preceded by the memorable slogan: “There are some things money can’t buy.”

Indeed, it’s impossible to ascribe a monetary value to Mount Rainier or the 416 other national park sites.

But what price tag is too high as public officials grapple with preserving these natural treasures for the next 100 years? Are there boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed?

These are fair questions for our country to ask at a time when the total estimated parks maintenance backlog stands at nearly $12 billion – roughly the gross domestic product of Armenia. That could pay for a lot of freeway repairs, Medicaid beds or military infrastructure.

At Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks alone, the cost to catch up on years of flood damage, neglect and other unfunded work is estimated at more than $400 million.

It’s also fair for individuals to ask affordability questions in the wake of the Trump Administration’s ill-advised proposal last year (abandoned, for now) to increase park entry fees by nearly 200 percent. Instead, gate fees went up in June by a modest $5.

How much are we personally willing to pay for outdoor experiences that are transcendent but perhaps discretionary?

For me, a healthy respect for the Park Service’s stewardship of public resources has only grown because of what I observed at a most impressionable time: while I was trying to keep my kids safe in the Mount Rainier backcountry.

On the evening of Day 2, as we braced to cross the west fork White River the next morning, a pair of volunteer rangers dropped by our tent site at James Camp and gave us good news: A work crew had just finished installing a footlog across the river.

Sure enough, the faint sound of a chainsaw echoed through the woods on Day 3 as we descended two miles to the river. They’d just finished the handrail, and we were the first to use it.

The $849-million Tacoma Narrows Bridge in all its glory never looked as good as this simple, rough-hewn span. It was built by a small trail crew that lugged their tools nine miles, cut a solid platform from a downed tree and exposed themselves to the mood swings of a glacier-fed river strong enough to move boulders.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve admired the men and women of the National Park Service, a workforce largely made up of seasonal employees and supplemented by more than a quarter million NPS volunteers each year – all of whom hold the wide open spaces as a sacred trust.

If only we could trust politicians to do the same.

There’s a hodgepodge of ideas floating around Congress that could put a dent in the maintenance backlog. One of the most intriguing is the National Parks Legacy Act, a bipartisan effort led by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, which would redistribute oil and gas royalty fees to create a sustainable source of parks funding.

In this election year, it’s up to voters to press for action. Elected leaders should listen to the late, great conservationist John Muir, and understand that investing in our priceless national parks isn’t so discretionary after all.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity,” Muir wrote in 1901.  

And sometimes it’s the only way to rise above the smoke.


By:  Matt Misterek
Source: The News Tribune