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A mountain's majesty: thousands of people are drawn to Mount Rainier as a recreational destination and as a place to live near. That attraction may be placing both the mountain and people in harm's way.

Like many people who live around Puget Sound, Kim Farnes has an emotional attachment to Mount Rainier. On the day she and her family moved into their house, they discovered they could see the mountain from their living room window. "We bought the house in February when we couldn't see Rainier [because of overcast skies]. I nearly cried when we moved in and saw it. It is truly an added blessing," she says.

Farnes' next surprise came when she received a packet welcoming her to the neighborhood. "Most developments give you coupons. We got an evacuation plan telling us which way to escape town," says Farnes, who lives in Orting, Washington, a small town just 25 miles from the volcanic mountain. Orting is built atop 20 feet of mud and rock that cascaded off Mount Rainier only 600 years ago, and geologists estimate an eruption could trigger a similar type of mudflow that could reach the town in 30 minutes.

Farnes' situation exemplifies the curious irony of Mount Rainier National Park: the charismatic mountain draws people to it in an almost magical way, but that intimacy is placing both mountain and people in danger.

A description of the park is a catalogue of extremes. At 235,635 acres, it is the smallest of Washington State's three national parks, although at 14,411 feet, the peak's enormous size dwarfs any other mountain in the lower 48 states. Mount Rainier's 26 major glaciers contain more ice and water than all other Cascade volcanoes combined, and the main visitor location, Paradise, averages nearly 700 inches of snow per year. The volcano last erupted in 1894, with major events 2,300 and 1,100 years ago. It became the country's fifth national park on March 2, 1899.

Since then, Mount Rainier has been a popular park, but the last couple of decades have seen it increasingly challenged by encroaching development and high levels of visitation in small pockets of time. In the four counties surrounding the park, the population has grown by more than a third in the past 20 years. This translates to more than 2.5 million people in the Seattle/Tacoma area being able to see Rainier on a dear day from homes, parks, freeways, and schools.

And the number of people choosing to live close to the park is still on an upward trend. One proposed development, Park Junction, a resort with a 270-room lodge, 300 condominiums, golf course, and 20,000 square feet of retail shops, would be only ten miles from the park's most popular entrance, Nisqually. (Appeals by NPCA and Tacoma Audubon have at least helped scale back the proposal.) Other projects include Cascadia Golf and Country Club, a 4,500-acre planned community on a plateau above Orting, and expansion of Crystal Mountain Resort, which could double visitor use at the resort to more than 700,000 per year.

All of these people contributing to the growing urban footprint also create another threat to the park: air pollution. A five-year study found that Paradise had nearly twice the daily mean ozone concentrations as nearby urban' areas. This occurs because the Puget Sound basin traps vehicle emissions and prevailing winds funnel the noxious gases up to the park. The quantity of ozone, a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels toxic to both plants and animals, directly relates to the larger cars and more miles driven by Puget Sound residents than in the past.

In fact, those residents are often in their cars to visit the park--which creates another set of problems. Former park superintendent Jon Jarvis calls it the "when it is out they will come" mentality. Most park visitors are day-trippers from the Puget Sound area, and rangers know that if Rainier is visible at the end of the week, the weekend will be crazy. People will have to wait in long lines at the entrance gate. They will park a half mile from the Paradise visitor center and walk up the road or they may not be able to park at all. In addition, many people will not be prepared for the abrupt change from a relatively benign urban environment to a landscape where they can get lost, fall in a crevasse, or freeze to death.

To seek solutions, park staff have started reaching outside its boundaries. "We recognize that we are all in this together. If planners outside the park fail, then we lose. If they succeed, we do, too," says Bryan Bowden, community planner for Mount Rainier. In that light, Bowden attends town meetings, works on advisory committees, and helps communities find outside money.

Transportation is a central issue in this external planning, and Bowden has started working with local communities to help build regional welcome centers. These regional centers would provide pre-visit information on parking, backcountry use, natural history, and lodging and would also serve as hubs for a shuttle system to carry visitors to and through the park. "If the shuttles are frequent, use dean technology, and include ranger-led interpretation, they can be one of the best ways to enhance the visitor experience," says current park superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

Shuttles would not mean the end of cars in the park. Managers recognize that many visitors, more than 60 percent of whom come from within Washington, have a long tradition of family drives to the mountain. These visitors, however, may not have the same quality of experience as earlier generations because they may not find any place to park and will either have to abandon their plans or circle like vultures for a parking spot.

Transportation is also a key issue that NPCA Northwest Regional Director Heather Weiner is working on with the park. "We're developing a transportation solution that works for Mount Rainier, its millions of visitors, and the local communities," she says. "Although there's no one size that fits all, we've learned a lot from NPCA's transportation work at Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks."

Progress is being made on other fronts as well. NPCA is working with a coalition of groups, called the Carbon River Valley Conservation Project (CRVCP), to expand the park's boundary at the entrance closest to Tacoma and Seattle. Legislation has been introduced in Congress, and action is expected soon.

CRVCP has also helped preserve the 1,040-acre Fairfax Forest, a mixture of old-growth and younger natural-growth timber that would abut the new boundary, and is active in extending a Rails-to-Trails path from Tacoma up into the park. Each of these proposals has strong support from county officials, local citizens, and park management.

Still, some aspects of the people-mountain relationship are simply beyond human control. Mount Rainier, after all, is a volcano and an active one. The mountain began to grow roughly 500,000 years ago and may have reached an elevation of nearly 16,000 feet before an eruption-triggered collapse 5,700 years ago. Additional lava eruptions have built the summit to its present height of more than 14,000 feet.

Lava, however, is not what makes geologists and emergency planners nervous. They focus instead on lahars, wet concrete-like slurries of water and sediment that can travel up to 60 mph. At least 60 of these flows have swept off Rainier in the past 10,000 years, with large ones ocurring on average every 500 years and the last, 600 years ago.

The largest, known as the Osceola Mudflow and caused by the 5,700-year-ago summit collapse, buried more than 210 square miles, including what would today be six towns, to an average depth of 25 feet. And this was at a time when forests, instead of homes and farmland, covered the valleys. One estimate is that a modern flow could cover 40 percent more land.

Lahars are dangerous not just because they can bury entire towns, but because they can occur without warning. Although eruptions are a primary cause of lahars and usually give ample warning through earthquakes and swelling of the mountain, earthquakes, steam eruptions, or collapse of weakened rock can also trigger lahars with no warning. This could leave residents in towns such as Orting and Puyallup with little time to evacuate.

The United States Geological Survey and Pierce County have set up a network of five geophones in the active floodplain of both the Puyallup and Carbon River valleys above Orting. If a lahar occurs, sensors that can detect vibrations produced by speeding debris flows would set off an alarm system of sirens and radio, Internet, and TV broadcasts.

The threat of lahars permeates life in the floodplains of river valleys that drain Mount Rainier. Kids learn about the mountain's hazards in school. Scientists disperse videos, give talks, and have set up a web site to disseminate information. A group of concerned citizens has started Bridge for Kids to build two foot bridges across the Carbon River, enabling students in Orting to walk to higher ground. Washington's Growth Management Act of 1990 limits growth in areas classified and designated as geologic hazards. In addition, Pierce County has an ordinance that bans construction such as schools, hospitals, and jails in lahar pathways. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and Washington Department of Natural Resources Division of Geology have carefully studied the lahars to determine which areas were inundated in the past, how deep the lahars might be, and the likelihood of a recurrence.

Despite these concerns, the mountain's attractions remain strong. Schools have been built in hazard zones, and people continue to move into areas they may not be able to escape from.

As resident Kim Farnes puts it, "Danger is everywhere but nobody gets the view I do." For people who live around Mount Rainier National Park, it is both an icon and a part of the family. The big question for the future is how we will treat this potentially volatile family member.

David Williams is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington. He last wrote for National Parks about the Natural Resource Challenge.
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Author:Williams, David
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U9WA
Date:May 1, 2003
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