In last month’s column, we saw that structures like engineered logjams on the Carbon River and setback levees on the lower Puyallup help mitigate erosion and flooding while creating salmon habitat. That’s great news! Let’s stay on the sunny side this month, checking out some groundbreaking restoration projects at Mount Rainier that include the repair of fragile meadows, a project that helps incarcerated people develop a connection to the mountain, and the return of a rare mammal to its slopes.
The breathtaking views and world-renowned flower fields at Paradise and Sunrise attract thousands of visitors annually, and park concessioners have long provided them with an array of amenities and attractions. Back in the day, a summer tent camp at Paradise allowed people to camp in the meadows. The nine-hole golf course lasted only one season, after the greens remained snow-covered until August the next year. In winter, skiers enjoyed an uphill rope tow for 40 years. A drive-in campground at Sunrise was popular until it closed in the 1970s. The horseback riding concession at Paradise and Sunrise operated for decades. These activities took a toll on the fragile subalpine meadows, where the growing season spans only a couple of months. Hikers contributed to the impact too, with Paradise rangers once counting more than 900 shortcuts known as social trails. Unregulated campsites and picnic areas added to the blemish upon the landscape.
The park began restoring the meadows as early as 1930, but the program hit its full stride in the 1980s. A landmark project at North Cascades National Park had proven that greenhouse-propagated native plants could take hold and thrive in the high country, and Mount Rainier soon followed suit. Even today, park staff and volunteers collect countless seeds by hand each summer. Greenhouse workers then germinate the seeds, raising the young plants over the winter and spring months. The thousands of transplants go into the ground at Paradise and Sunrise the following summer and early fall, jump-starting rehab projects and playing an important role in restoring the meadows.
As part of the meadows’ restoration, rangers studied visitor use patterns to understand non-compliance with signs and fences. After some experimenting, they found that the presence of uniformed personnel was the most effective way to limit trampling of the wildflowers. This gave rise to the Meadow Rovers, trained volunteers patrolling the subalpine parklands during the summer months to interact with visitors.
Speaking of volunteers, numerous opportunities await you at Mount Rainier! With a broad assortment of positions ranging from a few hours to a regular commitment, volunteering is a great way to deepen your connection to the mountain. And with a maintenance backlog of nearly $300 million, the park needs you. From meadow roving to trail work to all sorts of indoor projects, for people of all ages, abilities, and interests, Mount Rainier’s Volunteer Program has a spot for you. For more information, check out https://www.nps.gov/mora/getinvolved/volunteer.htm.
Another program that connects volunteers with the mountain is the Sustainability in Prisons Project. A joint venture between the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and The Evergreen State College, it provides opportunities at all of the state’s DOC facilities for incarcerated people to learn about and develop a relationship with nature. One of my favorite projects revolves around a once-abundant butterfly which, because of habitat loss, is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Taylor’s checkerspot, a two-inch beauty that sports a striking stained-glass pattern of black, reddish-orange and cream, lives a low profile existence for much of its seven-month life cycle. In a converted greenhouse at Belfair’s Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, residents have raised over 18,000 larvae and adult Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies for release on the Nisqually Valley prairies. Besides making a modest recovery, the checkerspots are making a mark on their handlers, too. When I visited the butterfly nursery, one of the women told me, “We’re saving their lives, and they’ve changed mine. It makes me feel like the best is yet to come—for the butterflies, and for us.”
Another species staging a comeback is the fisher, a housecat-sized carnivore of the Mustelid family that includes the martens, weasels, wolverines, and their relatives. Habitat loss and over-trapping eliminated fishers from Pacific Northwest forests in the early 20th century—their luxuriously plush pelts brought $300 each, equivalent to $3,500 today. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife listed fishers as a state-endangered species in 1998.
When biologists realized that the only way to restore the fisher population was through a reintroduction program, they swung into action. Working with a host of partners, they began releasing translocated Canadian fishers, where robust populations remain, into Washington’s forests in 2008. Since then, over 250 animals have repopulated the Olympics and the Cascades. Radio collars and remote cameras regularly verify that the fishers are successfully resettling their original territory.
Not long ago, I attended a “Fisher Release Party” at Mount Rainier. On a winter’s day with dagger-like icicles hanging from the Longmire Community Building, about 60 people circled around two biologists and several plywood cartons. Three male and three female fishers, just arrived from a 16-hour ordeal in the back of a pickup truck from British Columbia, awaited their release. When it came time to set the animals free, the biologists encouraged the children to step forward to release the fishers. About 10 kids, ages 4 to 12, eagerly approached the crates. With a little help, they removed the sliding wooden doors, allowing the animals to become part of the first fisher population at Mount Rainier in a hundred years. Sleek and low-slung, each animal charged through the snow and disappeared into the forest. Many in the crowd cheered; some stood in stunned amazement. I’d never seen anything like it.
To me, the fisher releases are one of the best “good news” stories at Mount Rainier, a perfect example of people and wild places coming together for the greater good. Speaking of wild places, next month we’ll set out on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that encircles the mountain, so dust off your backpack and squeeze a couple of training hikes into your busy schedule. In the meantime, keep your boots dry and your spirits high.