Park both protected and burdened

If you’ve ever driven into Mount Rainier National Park through the Nisqually entrance, you might know the feeling.

As you pass beneath the massive log arch and begin easing your car through tree-lined curves, there’s a sense of entering another reality.

Susan Dolan says she always feels it.

“Every time I drive through that entrance, I feel touched by the legacy,” said Dolan, who manages the Cultural Landscapes Program for the National Park Service from her office in Seattle.

The feeling is no accident, according to Dolan. It was orchestrated by early Park Service visionaries.

The park’s entrances, its roads with their stone masonry guard walls, the buildings that look as if they might have sprung from the earth — the entire visitor experience — was choreographed to convey presence in a special and maybe even hallowed place.

“It was almost like a Victorian playground of a park,” Dolan said. “The experience was all laid out for you.”

The Mount Rainier style helped set the tone for all the American national parks, Dolan said, and eventually parks all over the world.

That, and the fact that Mount Rainier was the first park to conform so completely to a master plan, led to the establishment in 1997 of the Mount Rainier National Historic Landmark District.

That gave the park the highest possible protection under the National Historic Preservation Act. The level of protection is on a par with the Statue of Liberty.

The designation was an honor, but in the era of climate change, it can seem at times like a burden.

The 100 miles of roads in the historic district are narrow; they were built through low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding. Their historic status makes it next to impossible for the park to change or move them.

As the planet warms and Mount Rainier’s glaciers melt, the roads constantly must be repaired, at great expense.

Dolan is aware of the irony of the situation.

The basis for the Mount Rainier master plan was the idea that everyone should be able to experience the world through the windshield of their automobile. The exhaust from all those cars turned out to be a major cause of climate change.

Within the Park Service, it’s not difficult to find people who think the roads were a bad idea to begin with.

The park was “dealt a bad hand” with the roads, said Paul Kennard, a Park Service geomorphologist who predicts ongoing disaster as climate change continues to melt Mount Rainier’s glaciers.

With regard to decades of futile effort to keep open the park’s Westside and Carbon River roads, park biologist Barbara Samora put it more bluntly: “How much money do you have to spend before you finally just say, ‘Enough is enough?’ ”

Dolan takes such skepticism in stride.

“Not everyone coalesces around the same notion of what is good and bad,” she said. “I truly believe people value national parks and want to take a conservative approach to change.”

The Park Service has a legal obligation to protect its cultural resources, Dolan said, and while the National Historic Preservation Act is strict, it is not completely inflexible.

“The idea is not to put these places in a bell jar and keep them entirely unchanged,” she said. “We can’t say that we will be able to manage the Mount Rainier National Historic Landscape in perpetuity. We can say that is our goal.”

“From a preservation standpoint, the roads need to stay where they are,” she said. “Where the debate comes is, ‘How much change is too much?’ It’s a question of degree. They still need to be recognizable as what they were.

“Society as a whole has decided these are significant,” Dolan said. “Which one of us now should be the one to decide, ‘We’re wiping this out?’ ”