Technical Report

Environment, Prehistory & Archaeology of Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Greg C. Burtchard

Chapter 2:

At 14,410 ft, Mount Rainier is the highest, most massive peak in the Cascade Range. It is surrounded by a relatively broad massif of lesser, though locally precipitous mountains, most in the range of 6,000 to 7,000 ft in elevation. Because of combined effects of elevation, mass, latitude and position relative to Pacific westerlies, Mount Rainier sustains the single largest glacier system in the 48 contiguous states. These glaciers are the source of several major Northwest rivers–the Nisqually, Mowich/Puyallup, Carbon and White Rivers draining into Puget Sound; and the Ohanapecosh/Cowlitz system emptying into the Columbia River at Longview north of Portland (Harris 1988:231). Figure 1.1 on page 2 shows a simplified projection of the mountain and its relationship to surrounding landforms and rivers.

Park boundaries form an approximately square 235,612 acre box around the base of the mountain and the northern fringe of the Tatoosh Range on Rainier's southern flank. Environmental characteristics vary with elevation, relative moisture (that is, lee versus windward flanks) and landform. Over the years, different taxonomic systems have been employed to characterize environmental patterns across Mount Rainier and its surrounding terrain (e.g., Brockman's [1947] use of elevational life zones, Franklin and Dyrness' [1973] classic vegetation zones of Oregon and Washington, and Moir's [1989] matrix treatment of Mount Rainier forests). Such schemes emphasize gross patterns in floral, principally forest, composition to present a complex reality in a simpler more comprehensible form.

In this chapter, Mount Rainier's environmental characteristics are classified in a five-part system that draws on existing environmental models–particularly Franklin and Dyrness (1973), but does so in a manner that emphasizes vegetation/resource zones of differential value to prehistoric human populations. Zones used here include 1) expansive low to mid-elevation Northwest maritime forests; 2) major river systems and associated floodplains; 3) subalpine parklands; 4) alpine tundra; and 5) perpetual snowfields, glaciers and glacial scree slopes. While not a vegetation zone per se, the rivers and floodplains distinction accommodates resources (especially anadromous fish) and land-use practices not otherwise expected in the forest to alpine environment. The system is similar to that employed by the author to examine archaeological/environmental associations on the flanks of Mt. Hood in the northern Oregon Cascades (Burtchard and Keeler 1991), and is compatible with systems used to characterize Olympic National Park (Schalk 1988) and North Cascades National Park (Mierendorf 1986) environments. With the addition of lower elevation or more xeric associations, the system can readily be extended to other landforms in and adjacent to the Cascades.

Use of an environmental zone model to characterize Holocene floral and faunal associations (and human land-use patterns) is complicated by at least two variables–dynamic Mount Rainier geology, and Holocene climate change. To gain some control over these issues, this chapter is organized into sections that describe the nature and archaeological implications of each. The first section, is a discussion of local geology with general implications for environment, land-use and the archaeological record. The second describes basic environmental/resource patterns, emphasizing resources believed to be particularly important for attracting systematic human use during prehistoric times. The third section discusses the possible impact of Holocene environmental changes on land-use patterns, and suggests means to improve our understanding of regional paleoclimate. A summary of Mount Rainier environment and long-term use by human populations concludes the chapter.

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Last Updated: Monday, 18-Oct-2004 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division

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