Possible Rainier price: $100 million

The National Park Service director Tuesday pegged the price tag of flood damage at Mount Rainier National Park at nearly $100 million, far beyond previous estimates of $36 million.

Mary Bomar offered the figure to the House interior appropriations subcommittee. She also said that the Nisqually Road, which was severely damaged by November flooding, will be open to the public from the entrance of the park to Paradise by May 1.

Dave Uberuaga, Mount Rainier National Park superintendent, told The Olympian on Tuesday evening that he's not sure where Bomar got the $100 million estimate. Mount Rainier National Park officials are standing by their estimate of $36 million, he said.

"Our caveat is still that 80 percent of the park is covered with snow, and as the snow melts, we expect to find more damage from the flood and from winter storms," Uberuaga said.

The extent of the unprecedented damage might not be known until the snow melts, according to a park service briefing memo delivered to the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., during a hearing.

More than 18 inches of rain fell in the park in less than 36 hours in early November, touching off floods that swept away roads, campgrounds, trails and other facilities. The park was closed for weeks, the first closure since World War II.

Bomar visited the park Nov. 17 to see the damage.

Most of the park remains closed, though there is limited foot access to Longmire and along the Carbon River Road. But the hike can be dangerous. Two people drowned in the park last week as they tried to cross a creek.

"Its a natural disaster and you have to fix this stuff," Dicks said after the hearing. "I feel good the way the park service has responded."

The park service memo said possible delays caused by winter conditions have been factored into the May 1 date for opening the Nisqually Road, the park's main year-round corridor. At least four sections of the road were damaged or obliterated in the floods.

State Route 123, part of the main north-south corridor on the parks east side, is not expected to open to the public until October at the earliest. And Stevens Canyon Road, the only road connecting the east and west sides of the park, might not open to the public until August, the memo said.

Some road repairs elsewhere in the park might be delayed until August because of concerns for threatened and endangered species, including the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and bull trout.

In order to help make up for economic losses caused by the park's closure, the memo said additional services or longer operating seasons will be utilized in some areas. One example: The Sunrise visitor center on the park's east side will open in June, two weeks earlier than normal.

"I have assurances they will do whatever needs to be done to fix the problems," Dicks said. "I trust them."

During the hearing, Dicks said he was pleased that the Bush administration is proposing a 12 percent, or $206 million, increase in operating funds for the 390 parks, monuments, historic sites and other park service units. That follows several years in which funding was trimmed, forcing layoffs and reducing the number of seasonal employees hired.

But Dicks and others said that increase and other proposed increases in the park service budget came at the expense of other federal programs under his subcommittee's jurisdiction. Among others, the administration has proposed a $400 million cut in the Clean Water program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and a $174 million cut in the Forest Service budget.

"It is unfortunate that the badly needed increases for the parks come at the expense of other domestic priorities funded in the bill," Dicks said.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., a member of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, said the increased park service funding was a mirage and was based on unacceptable cuts in other priority programs.

Bomar didn't respond to the criticism. But she noted that the centennial of the park service is approaching in 2016, and the budget includes $3 billion in new funds for the parks in the next 10 years. That includes $1 billion in federal funding, $1 billion in private funding and $1 billion in matching federal funds.

Dicks said he didn't have any problems with private funding, but Obey differed.

"There is significant concern about the potential for over-­commercialization of the parks," he said.

Under questioning, Bomar said the park service still has a backlog of delayed maintenance projects that would cost nearly $8 billion to eliminate, including $1.1 billion in immediate needs. The budget proposal includes almost $1 billion for maintenance projects.

Olympian outdoors reporter Chester Allen contributed to this story.