Politics & Government

Rainier chief noted for passion, caring

When Dave Uberuaga pulls out of his Eatonville driveway Monday, for the first time in a long time he will not drive to Mount Rainier National Park as its chief.

Instead, he will head south, to his new position as superintendent at Grand Canyon National Park.

As the Washington park's 14,411-foot namesake peak fades in his rearview mirror, Uberuaga leaves behind a legacy of compassion and leadership.

"He is the epitome of what is right about the National Park Service," Jay Staz, Northwest executive for the Student Conservation, said when news of Uberuaga's departure was announced in May.

"He was the ideal ranger," said longtime park volunteer Dixie Gatchel. "Not only did he have everything a ranger needs, he was very environmentally conscious, he had great administrative skills and great people skills."

"He has an easygoing way, but he is determined to get things done," said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair. "He tells you straight."

For all the accolades and honors ñ he was named the federal land manager of the year in 2008 ñ the mountain will always be the focal point for Uberuaga (pronounced oo-buh-RAH-guh).

"The single thing I'll miss the most is being able to see the mountain," he said of leaving the Northwest.

He talked of being in day-long meetings in Seattle, coming out frustrated and tired.

"But to get on Interstate 5 and to see the mountain, it all went away," he said. "I still look, after all these years. I slow down and take a peek."

The mountain also is a symbol of celebration for Uberuaga.

He tells the story of his daughter Michelle asking to be married in the park in 2008. Wading through the paperwork was going to be daunting, but he agreed.

More stunning, though, was the request for him to join 14 others ñ including all three of his children ñ in a summit attempt a week before the ceremony.

"An hour and a half out, I thought, 'We're going to make it.' I got so emotional," he said. "One of my favorite pictures is me with my kids on the summit."

That trip was one of five successful climbs to the summit. Three other attempts ended when the climbing rangers accompanying him were called to join a rescue.

That time on the mountain meant a lot to people such as Mike Gauthier. The former supervisory climbing ranger left the park in 2008 to take part in a congressional fellowship program. He is now the chief of staff at Yosemite National Park.

"He was the type to get engaged and see things in the park; he wasn't one to manage from reports," Gauthier said. "He absolutely went everywhere in the park.

"It shows a real commitment and that he cared. It gave him a lot more confidence and a lot of credibility with the staff."

Gauthier also remembered Uberuaga's personal side.

The two first met in 1995 at the White River Campground. Gauthier had just come down the mountain after an accident that killed two climbing rangers, Phil Otis and Sean Ryan.

"He was there as a caring manager of the park," Gauthier said. "What a challenging thing to go through for him, being there when people are crying, they're mad, they're upset."

Gatchel, the volunteer, also recalled that side of Uberuaga. He delivered the eulogy at a May 2006 memorial service for Gatchel's husband, Clay, who died in a bike accident the previous December.

Opening his remarks, Uberuaga used his park radio to try to reach Clay, whose call sign was 0-0-7.

Unable to do so, Uberuaga asked the park communication center to locate 0-0-7. A moment later, the communication center called back with a response Uberuaga had written.

"One hundred, we have found 0-0-7. He's at Paradise."

"That was so perfect,"

Dixie said. "I still read it."


Despite serving nearly nine years as superintendent, Uberuaga leaves a rather lengthy to-do list for his successor.

Among the top items are a major renovation of the Paradise Inn Annex, $50 million in road work to be done in the next five years, and development of the new Carbon River entrance area and campground.

His list of accomplishments is just as remarkable.

During his tenure, the park has renovated the Paradise Inn, built a new Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, completed a management plan to guide future decisions, and celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Uberuaga also thwarted a plan to outsource 70 park maintenance jobs, an effort that led to a couple of trips to the woodshed with the Park Service director pushing the plan.

Donna Rahier has worked with four superintendents in her 33 years in the superintendent's office. She has worked at the park almost 48 years.

Twice she worked for Bill Briggle, as well as Neal Guse, Jon Jarvis (now director of the National Park Service) and Uberuaga.

"For Dave, it's his connection with people, either professionally or personally," she said of his success. "He's very interested and passionate about everything he does."

There also is a silly side, Rahier said, to the man known to be meticulous about his uniform, from his flat-rimmed ranger hat to his shoes.

She remembered the time he rode in the Daffodil Parade on the back of a motorcycle driven by a clown. He was more than willing to help judge the dessert contest held by staff members and volunteers each season at Sunrise.

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, remembers bringing two of his grandchildren, 13 and 11 at the time, to Paradise one early spring.

"Dave, the grandkids and I took a short snowshoe hike. Dave started a snowball fight with the grandkids," Reichert said, laughing at the memory. "He was always a lot of fun, and welcoming to the kids."

"A lot of superintendents won't do that kind of stuff," Rahier said.

He and Dicks point to the historic flood of November 2006 as one of Uberuaga's best moments as an administrator.

Almost 18 inches of rain fell in 36 hours, the resulting floods causing havoc in every corner of the park. The park was closed for six months; the repair bill was $36 million.

"He went right in there and did what he had to do to fix the roads, get the logs out of the rivers," Dicks said. "They dealt with a huge volume of volunteers. He got his staff pumping and did an amazing thing getting that park reopened."

"We were very fortunate to have him there when that huge storm came through," Reichert said. "He worked with the community, rebuilt the roads, saved specific trees that had been there hundreds of years."


That praise doesn't mean every decision has been met with unanimous support.

Eric Simonson, co-owner of Ashford-based International Mount Guides, said he and Uberuaga have disagreed over the years.

They're on opposite sides on such issues as closing the Carbon River Road after the flood, increasing climbing fees 43.3 percent this year, a plan to spend $34 million on the Nisqually-Paradise Road with little allowance for flood protection, and the lack of a year-round campground in the park.

"While we have disagreed about these things, Dave has never been disagreeable," Simonson said.

"I give him credit for taking the time and effort to clearly explain the Park Service position in a way that left me understanding his viewpoint, even if we did not see eye to eye."

Uberuaga admits his time at Mount Rainier has not been without bumps. He received a letter of reprimand in 2008 over the wording in a disclosure statement he completed as part of a real estate deal in 2002.

Then the deputy superintendent, he had sold his Ashford home to Peter and Erika Whittaker. The property is across state Route 706 from the Whittaker-owned Rainier Mountaineering Inc. operations. The Whittakers now use the house for staff members and the property for additional parking.

The letter stated that Uberuaga should have further noted in the disclosure that Peter Whittaker was a co-owner of RMI. The letter, from Jarvis, was rescinded after a year.

While the inspector general report said the matter was not deliberate, Uberuaga said it was a lesson learned.

"You have to be above reproach as a leader," he said.

After 27 years at the park, Friday will be his last day, Uberuaga said he knew his time there was coming to an end. He just didn't know whether the next chapter of his life would be retirement or a new opportunity.

An 18-month stint as acting superintendent at Yosemite and other job opportunities persuaded him to seek the Grand Canyon position earlier this year.

"Yosemite was a personally affirming time for me," he said. "We were able to get a lot accomplished. To have so much success made me think that maybe I could make a difference somewhere else."

That doesn't mean Uberuaga's ready to end his relationship with "the Mother Mountain," an Indian term he likes to borrow. When retirement comes, the Boise native and his wife, Barbara, plan to return to the Northwest.

"Emotionally, I feel very proud, very affirmed," he said. "I'll be forever thankful for the opportunity. Just the fact that I got to be here and face some significant challenges."

As he talks of his time at the park, Uberuaga is quick to credit all the people he worked with.

"There is this tremendous amount of thanks and gratitude," he said. "Without their passion and dedication to the resource, this place would fall apart."


Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640