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Smaller budget chips away at Rainier
[June 16, 2006]

Smaller budget chips away at Rainier

(News Tribune, The (Tacoma, WA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 16--Visitors will begin to see the impact of a shrinking budget at Mount Rainier National Park this summer.

Park officials have cut visitor center hours, eliminated some campfire programs and guided hikes, and printed fewer free handouts because of a shrinking budget heading into the busiest time of year.

Since 1997, managers at Mount Rainier have planned on having $275,000 less for operational expenses each year, said Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park. They will continue to do so for the next five years.

"That $275,000 is a lot when you consider you can pay for a whole seasonal work force for $500,000 a year," he said.

Uberuaga discussed the park's budget following Thursday's release of a study by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. The group said its review of 37 national parks shows budget cuts have caused the parks to become less safe for visitors, the facilities less clean and the parks' resources less protected.

While Olympic National Park was included in the study, Mount Rainier was not.

"The budget crisis in our parks is real and it will be felt keenly by park visitors this summer," said Bill Wade, chairman of the coalition's executive council.

Mount Rainier's operational budget for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 is $10.2 million, down 3 percent from last year. As a result, the park has opted to leave 13 full-time positions open, up from five last year. Those positions range from sign makers to the chief ranger to the chief of administration.

Those dollars instead are being spent to staff the park's visitor centers, museums and campground, Uberuaga said.

"More than half of the seasonal interpretive work force, that's $110,000, is being paid for by leaving other positions vacant. We're paying for the visitor experience but you can't be quite as effective as you can will a full cadre of your team."

"What happens is you can get by, but you can't move forward with projects. Those things have a cumulative impact in the long run," Uberuaga said.

Among the changes visitors will notice:

-- Ohanapecosh campfire talks will be held on weekends only, rather than seven days a week. Guided walks also are being cut. There also will be no campfire programs at the Carbon River campground.

-- Eastside visitor center hours are being cut. Facilities at Sunrise will close one week earlier this season.

-- The outreach program, which includes ranger-led talks outside the park, will continue to serve only low-income children.

Other impacts are taking place behind the scenes. The park greenhouse will produce just 15,000 plants for site restoration work, down from 70,000 last year. The park is scrambling to find funds to continue monitoring the Nisqually Glacier, something it has done for 76 years.

The impacts, Uberuaga admits, are not as drastic as at other parks. Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, will not have potable water or trash pickups at three campgrounds, according to the coalition. Yosemite will have just eight seasonal rangers giving visitor talks, down from 45 in recent years.

"The emphasis here will be to make it as transparent as we can for visitors. Some parks are not going to test water or close facilities. We might be a year or two away from being in a position of those parks that are closing campgrounds," Uberuaga said.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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