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Managing Mount Rainier’s problems: The old ways no longer work

Warned by geologists that the South Tahoma Glacier is aimed like a fire hose at the main entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, the National Park Service responded this summer with a traditional approach.

Just past the log archway at the park’s Nisqually entrance, where outfall from the glacier crosses the main entrance road, contractors replaced a big culvert with a bigger one.

The new culvert is enormous — tall enough inside for a regulation-height basketball hoop with room left over for dunks.

The park camouflaged the new culvert with 1920s-style stonework to match that used in the rest of the park — right down to using a historically authentic recipe for grout.

As the reality of climate change sinks in, it’s becoming increasingly obvious — to scientists and managers in the park and the public as well — that such traditional approaches no longer are adequate.

Big as it is, the new culvert is miniscule compared with the surges of mud, rock and gravel that geologists say will periodically be released from the South Tahoma Glacier and others during the next several decades.

Even if the next outburst crosses the road at this particular point — which geologists say is far from certain — it easily could wipe out the entire road, culvert and all, with barely a pause.

The scale of problems presented by climate change is so overwhelming, the old ways don’t work any more.

Global warming will change the park from top to bottom, scientists say, forcing managers to choose among the many values they are required to protect, including natural and cultural resources and public access.

The situation is not unique to Mount Rainier. Other national parks are similarly threatened, including some that are in danger of losing the features they were set aside to protect.

If climate change continues as predicted, scientists say Glacier National Park will have no glaciers in about 30 years. Joshua Tree National Park will have no Joshua trees.

Jonathon Jarvis, the former Mount Rainier superintendent who’s now director of the Park Service, calls climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.”

The situation has led to hand-wringing and head scratching in the parks.

When nature is no longer natural, how far should park managers go in resisting its effects? As entire ecosystems change along with the climate, what is it exactly that the parks are supposed to be protecting?

TRIAGE NOT POSSIBLE

The environmental laws and policies that guide the Park Service were written before climate change became an issue, and now, ironically, they could turn out to be impediments to intervention that could save species and preserve access.

“Some of the obstacles in trying to manage these resources is that current federal law and policy are going to come to loggerheads at some point,” said Roger Andrascik, chief of natural and cultural resources at Mount Rainier.

“Triage isn’t really possible,” he said. “There isn’t one value that’s supreme. You have to balance them all.

“From a policy standpoint, we have to decide: What do our current policies allow us to do? Will those laws and policies keep up with what we have to do?”

At Mount Rainier, the most immediate dilemma, and the most controversial at this point, involve the park’s roads.

A central part of the park’s mission is “providing for public enjoyment,” but the melting glaciers are destroying roads faster than the park can repair them.

Two of the park’s most popular roads, the Carbon River and the Westside, are closed — most likely permanently — because of floods and debris flows. In 2006, flooding shut down the entire park for six months.

In places outside the park, dredging rivers or moving the roads to higher ground would be options, but at Mount Rainier, neither is practical nor permissible.

Except for existing road corridors and building sites, the entire park is designated a National Wilderness Area, which carries heavy restrictions on development.

Building roads outside of existing corridors would literally take an act of Congress and also would put federally protected resources at risk.

“You’ve got old-growth forests, trees several hundred years old to a thousand years old,” Andrascik said. “You’ve got endangered fish species, the northern spotted owl. All the values that we’re trying to protect would be compromised.”

Building elevated roads supported by piers could be an option, but the National Historic Preservation Act prohibits changing the look and feel of current roads.

The Federal Highway Administration, which funds most park road repair, has a policy of “replace-in-kind” after floods. It pays only to replace existing roads, not to design and build new ones.

If the planet continues to warm as scientists say it will, the option of visiting the park by private automobile might go away.

“Access is a value to be protected, but not access at all cost,” said Mark Wenzler, senior vice president of conservation programs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s very clear that’s not the mandate.

“When access becomes not economically viable to maintain, in an era when Congress is not funding the Park Service adequately, park managers are obliged to make those hard calls,” Wenzler said. “Some things can’t be repaired; some things can’t be moved, can’t be rebuilt.”

Park managers try hard not to reduce access because “providing for the public enjoyment” is part of their mission and also because they know it helps build political support.

The more people there are who visit and appreciate national parks, the more likely it is that Congress will fund them.

“Public access is important for a lot of reasons,” said Sueann Brown, historical architect at Mount Rainier. “The early planners wanted everyone to be able to access the park, not just the elite.

“We want the average Joe to be able to drive in,” Brown said. “It gives a broader segment of the population the ability to experience nature, and you also have a broader segment of the population then understanding the resources and building the political will to support them.”

HUMAN INTERVENTION?

As climate change intensifies over the next few decades, some species of plants and animals likely will be doomed without human intervention, scientists say. Current park policies — and the personal feelings of many Park Service employees — discourage active intervention.

“It’s really difficult for us in the Park Service because we’ve always had a kind of hands-off perspective,” Samora said. “We think our job is to protect, but in the face of climate change, we don’t know what that means.”

Mount Rainier’s alpine and subalpine areas are huge tourist draws and also home to some of the park’s most threatened plant and animal species.

As climate change squeezes wildflowers and butterflies out of their alpine habitat, should they be artificially helped by removing trees moving into the meadows?

Lower on the mountain, should migrating barred owls be killed to protect habitat for spotted owls?

When wetlands dry up, should endangered frogs and lizards be packed up and moved to wetter parts of the park?

If species from outside the park arrive as expected because of climate change, should they be removed as “invasive?” Or should they be protected?

“What would have gotten here on its own and what’s here because of human causes?” Samora asked. “That’s the big dilemma right now. How do you tease out what’s natural and what’s unnatural?”

POLICY PLAYS ITS PART

The politics of climate change make coming up with a course of action in the parks more difficult.

Despite acceptance by mainstream scientists that the planet is warming and that humans are mainly to blame, there’s powerful political resistance to the idea.

Without congressional acknowledgment that climate change is at least in part due to human causes, it won’t be easy to justify some of the interventions advocated by scientists and wilderness managers.

President Barack Obama’s willingness to regard planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants put them under the regulatory control of the Environmental Protection Agency via the 1970 Clean Air Act.

But the Republican-led majority in Congress is determined to reverse his actions.

The Park Service’s chronic poverty adds another layer of difficulty. At Mount Rainier, researchers can’t afford baseline studies and monitoring that would make it possible to document changes caused by warming.

“Unless we get more data, we can’t document change,” Andrascik said.

Park geologists will have no funding to continue climate change and geologic hazard related studies next year. Despite increasingly apparent threats to natural resources at Mount Rainier, the park’s Natural and Cultural Resources Division was forced to cut spending by $200,000 this year — about 20 percent of its budget.

Senior program managers in the division were offered early retirements or buyouts to further reduce expenses. Three of them — the heads of aquatics, vegetation and wildlife — are leaving.

INFRASTRUCTURE IN DANGER

In the park’s northwestern corner, where the sediment-laden Carbon River has torn out miles of road, Rebecca Rossi steers a tough little all-terrain vehicle up toward the toe of the Carbon Glacier.

She fords streams and lurches across washouts, the ATV’s wheels sending up gouts of mud as she guns the engine on eroded inclines.

Rossi, a graduate student in geology, is in the park to research the effects of climate change.

Over the past two summers, she’s spent weeks camped out along the Carbon, tracking the activity of the river as it carries hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of rock and gravel down from higher elevations.

The way the park has dealt with the Carbon might be a vision of the future.

Access is severely restricted — only hikers and mountain bikers can use the road. Historical resources have been compromised. For example, the Ipsut Creek Cabin, built in 1933 to house back country rangers, was undercut by the river’s rapid course changes in 2006 and was dismantled and reassembled, piece by piece, on higher ground.

Natural resources on the Carbon have been compromised, too.

When the ATV has gone as far as it can, Rossi sets out on foot, leaping from boulder to boulder and clambering over downed trees on the way to a place she calls the Ghost Forest, where the river has cut a new course through an old-growth forest, killing acres of trees that have stood for centuries.

This summer, Rossi prepared a detailed inventory of park infrastructure endangered by climate change. The list includes every public access route into the park, except one, a spine-jarring gravel road to Mowitch Lake. It also includes the entire historic settlement of Longmire, which now houses the park’s maintenance, law enforcement and, unfortunately, its emergency operations center.

AN IDEA FOR ACTION

According to some in the wilderness land management profession, the best way for park managers to deal with climate change is to focus more on what’s happening outside their borders.

“They need to look at what’s happening in the whole landscape,” said Mark Wenzler, senior vice president of Conservation Programs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

While some talk of the parks as “refuges” against climate change, Wenzler doesn’t agree.

“I don’t like that word,” he said. “It sounds like we’re surrendering. Rather than refuges, I prefer to think of parks as anchor tenants within large, connected landscapes. Where it’s necessary, we need to be more deliberate in reconnecting them.”

“We need to change the things we can control — air pollution, for example,” he said. “If you take those kinds of stressors out of the system, you’re providing a lot more opportunities for fish and wildlife to deal with climate change, even as it speeds up the pace of things.”

NATURAL VS. UNNATURAL

Craig Thomas is a professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, where he specializes in environmental policy and national land management.

Thomas said he sees no point in park managers agonizing over the distinction between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural” as they formulate responses to climate change.

“From my perspective, climate change is human caused, but it’s still natural,” he said. “Humans are a part of nature. Global warming may not be something you like, but we’re part of nature and what we’re seeing is natural change.”

If maintaining biodiversity is the goal, Thomas said, it means ecosystems will require increasing human involvement, and there should be no hesitation to do so.

Choosing to do nothing is itself a form of manipulation, he said. To allow climate change — an accidental human intervention — to proceed without undertaking planned, purposeful intervention makes no sense, he said.

“I personally believe in preserving habitat for as many species as possible,” he said, “and if moving species around helps keep biodiversity, then I’m all for it. Park managers should be doing their best to maintain what’s there.”

Wenzler is more cautious than Thomas with regard to park managers intervening to counteract the effects of climate change.

“Probably in the long run it’s not viable to engineer nature,” Wenzler said. “The best thing we can do is to maintain a healthy, functioning ecosystem — but not with a heavy hand.”

“It becomes an area of ‘best judgment.’ You can’t really legislate or regulate that ahead of time.”

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