Teddy Roosevelt once recalled a near-religious experience he had “lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
The great conservationist president was reflecting on his visit to California’s Yosemite Valley in 1903. But he could have been describing the bliss countless visitors have found at Mount Rainier – a crown jewel of the National Park System, and the pride of Pierce County.
If Mount Rainier is a cathedral, then the Wonderland Trail is its grand vestibule. The 93-mile loop trail carries wilderness lovers through rolling glacier-carved sanctuaries along the Carbon and Puyallup rivers, up to divine subalpine heights such as Summerland and Klapatche Park.
This year, however, pilgrims will have a more difficult time accessing the mountain’s hallowed spaces.
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Mount Rainier officials announced last week that due to a freak software glitch caused by a power failure, they’re canceling all backcountry reservations for the 2016 season. Park staff, who normally sort through requests and issue permits in the early spring, will instead issue them on a first-come-first-served basis no more than a day before a hiker sets out into the wilderness.
The snafu is an embarrassment for the National Park Service in the year it’s celebrating its 100th anniversary, at a time when hiking the Wonderland has never been more popular.
Before 2013, the number of people filing permit paperwork at the start of the reservation period (the last two weeks of March) numbered in the hundreds; last year, requests filed in that period soared to 2,600.
Now, backpackers who had planned to take a week or two to circumnavigate Rainier will have to drive to a park ranger station and hope for a walk-up permit. Coordinating transportation, food resupply, distances between available campsites and other logistical details is not usually left to chance.
It won’t be surprising if many backcountry trips are canceled. That would be bad news for Ashford, Greenwater and other mountain towns that rely on summer tourism.
On the other hand, local outdoorspeople with flexible schedules might benefit if destination-hikers from outside the region stay away in droves this year.
Park Superintendent Randy King said in an interview Thursday that he’s disappointed about the system breakdown. “We take customer service very seriously here.”
But he’s excited that University of Washington graduate students are developing an online registration system that could be up and running by next year. It will replace the old-school fax-and-mail system that Mount Rainier (and several other national parks) have used for years to handle backcountry reservations.
The fact that a top attraction in the backyard of Microsoft and Amazon is still using fax machines in 2016 – and relying on volunteer labor to complete important customer-service initiatives – is emblematic of the precarious state of the National Park Service in its milestone anniversary year.
President Obama last month proposed an additional $250 million for the entire NPS as it celebrates its centennial, including more money for repair and infrastructure projects. But even if every one of those extra dollars were given to Mount Rainier, it wouldn’t cover the $285 million maintenance backlog at the park. And it won’t put a dent in a national list of deferred projects estimated at $12 billion.
King said key projects being done at Rainier this year include utility upgrades at the Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock campgrounds. Crews also will complete the Nisqually Road project, with improved pavement running all the way from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise.
The rest of the backlog? There’s no end in sight.
Staff also must contend with the rising costs of operating the park. To help plug the gap, the public has seen increased gate-entrance, campground and climbing fees in recent years.
Historically, backcountry adventurers have paid little or nothing. The only cost is a $20 reservation fee – and with no reservations this year, Wonderland wayfarers won’t pay a cent. (Those who already paid will be refunded.)
Rainier officials ought to consider a fee for backpackers to obtain overnight permits or an annual wilderness pass. Many national parks of various sizes – from Olympic to Yellowstone – already do this. Reasonable hikers should have no quarrel providing revenue to help support trail maintenance, wilderness information centers and backcountry ranger pay.
King said officials have discussed it but not moved forward aggressively because “you don’t want to price people out of their parks.”
That’s certainly not happening on the Wonderland Trail.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter so much whether outdoor disciples access this glorious place on a reservation or a walk-up basis, on a leisurely day hike or a week-long expedition.
What matters is that the cathedral is preserved for future generations to adore.