Is the Park Service too timid?

  When Washington's Mount Rainier blew its top 5,600 years ago, a massive mud flow buried much of the Puget Sound under hundreds of feet of mud and rock. Today, smaller mudslides from the volcano, called one of the world's most dangerous, threaten Mount Rainier National Park. In the past decade, slides have destroyed a bridge on the Winthrop Trail six times, and one slide nearly buried a campground in 1963.

Now, as they prepare a new 20-year management plan, park officials are considering closing some areas to keep the more than 2 million annual visitors safer.

Covered by 35 square miles of glacial ice, Mount Rainier "is basically being eaten away from the inside out" by volcanic activity, says park planner Eric Walkinshaw. But he worries more about frequent small slides than about an eruption. Slides are set off by small earthquakes and steam releases that melt ice; they can move so fast that people below have only minutes to flee.

To safeguard visitors, the Park Service is considering the closure of two campgrounds and the historic Longmire Lodge. Locals are not pleased. The agency held hearings recently in Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, Eatonville and Enumclaw and residents showed up at each meeting in force to blast the park plans.

"They wanted to have even more access to the park," Walkinshaw says.

Brooke Drury, speaking for the climbing group, The Mountaineers, says mountain users must accept the risks of going into the wild, and so should the Park Service. "We're not going to support the closing of a campground or the Longmire Lodge simply because there's a threat from mudslides," Drury says.

The public comment period for the plan ended Nov. 30, but more comment will be allowed when the agency releases a revised plan. For information, contact Mount Rainier National Park, Tahoma Woods Star Route, Ashford, WA 98304, Attention: Superintendent William Briggle, or The Mountaineers, 300 Third Ave. W, Seattle, WA 98119 (206/284-6310).

* Jason Lenderman

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