Mount Rainier's historic Carbon River Road has seen its last motorized traffic, if the National Park Services has its way.
Late Friday, the Park Service released its environmental assessment for managing access to the Carbon River portion of Mount Rainier National Park.
The Park Service’s preferred alternative is to convert the road – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – into a 4.8-mile hiking and biking trail to Ipsut Creek Campground.
“I want to provide as much access as we can, but when you look at the road segment and the expense of providing flood repairs, it’s a significant cost,” Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said. “Emotionally, it’s not where I would like the alternatives to end up, but as a prudent manager, I have to look at (park users) and say the road is not sustainable.”
The six-mile Carbon River Road has allowed vehicle access to Ipsut Creek Campground in the northwest corner of the park. However, 17.9 inches of rain fell in the park Nov. 6-7, 2006, triggering flooding that washed out several segments of the road. Floods damaged the road again in 2008.
The road has been closed to vehicle use since 2006, but bikers and hikers have been using the trails.
The environmental assessment offers five alternatives.
Alternative 1: Take no action and continue current management of the road as unimproved trail for hiking and biking. Estimated cost: More than $1 million.
Alternative 2 (preferred): Reopen the road 1.2 miles to private vehicles as far as a turnaround at the Old Mine Trailhead. From there, the road would be converted into an improved trail. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.
Alternative 3: Reopen 3.6 miles of road, to Chenuis, to public vehicles. Beyond that, it would be an improved trail. Estimated cost: $10.8 million.
Alternative 4: Repair the road from the Old Mine Trailhead turnaround to milepost 4.4 to be used only by seasonal and weekend shuttle service. A trail would lead to the Wonderland Trail. Estimated cost: $11.4 million.
Alternative 5: Temporarily use the road as a hiking and biking trail while a 36-inch-wide wilderness trail is built. Bikes typically are not allowed on wilderness trails. Estimated cost: $4.5 million.
Adding to the difficulty of the assessment, the road corridor is home to bull trout, spotted owls and marbled murrelets, all threatened species. Also compounding the issue is the buildup of boulders, rocks and other debris that has raised the riverbed.
“The river has gotten higher and the road hasn’t,” said Assistant Superintendent Randy King. “It would take extraordinary measures and expense to protect the road, and that’s something we can’t afford.”
The Park Service’s choice is likely to be controversial, and it will have a 45-day public-comment period. The park has scheduled meetings in Buckley, Tacoma and Seattle.
Diane Winters, a Sumner resident, is among those who disagree with the park’s plan.
“It’s very frustrating. You feel like they don’t want to get it fixed,” she said.
Uberuaga said the emotional reaction is, “I want the road open.”
“For many people, that’s really the heart of it; they want good and easy access to (the glacier). But as I look at it, this is the best I can do with what I have.”