This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Every once in a while, Mount Rainier reminds those living in her shadow that wilderness has its own rules.
So it was in November 2006 when a Pineapple Express dumped 18 inches of rain in 36 hours, forcing a months-long closure of the national park.
The park’s most popular entrance at Nisqually reopened in 2007, but another entrance important to South Puget Sound residents – Carbon River Road – has remained off limits to all but bikers and hikers.
The National Park Service is proposing to leave it that way. Last week, the park service backed a proposal to reopen the road 1.2 miles past the park entrance and convert the rest of the 4.8-mile road to a hiking and biking trail.
Other alternatives would be to rebuild the road even further into the park, getting motorists closer to the Ipsut Creek Campground and the popular 3.5-mile Carbon Glacier Trail. But none proposes rebuilding the entire road.
It may well be time for the park service to cut its losses rather than again repair a road that has sustained damage eight times in the last 20 years.
The park service almost didn’t reopen the road after flooding in 1996, but eventually bowed to public sentiment that favored keeping it open. A master plan adopted in 2002 called for permitting vehicle traffic on the road until the next “major washout” occurred.
The road is simply built in the wrong place. Over time, boulders and debris have raised the streambed of the Carbon River, making it more apt to flood the road even in less severe storms.
Continually throwing good money after bad – especially when the park service has so little of it – isn’t good stewardship. But neither is barring access to an important part of the park to all but the fittest outdoorsmen.
The park’s northwest corner remains an important jumping-off point for visitors. It’s close to major population centers and helps relieve some of the burden on the Nisqually gateway to Paradise.
It will be important, as the park service decides what to do with the existing Carbon River Road alignment in the short term, that the long-term vision remain on how to restore and even improve access in the future.
Mount Rainier will always have something to offer wilderness athletes. But broad public support for the park depends on providing the rest of the public a way in, too.