An Administrative History of Mount Rainier National Park
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NPS planners in the Mission 66 era regarded visitor circulation as the key to good national park planning and management. In the 1960s and 1970s they changed their focus to land classification, or zoning. Zoning would help managers restrict various types of development, visitor use, and administrative activity to appropriate areas in the park. Zoning would provide a more precise and ecologically sensitive framework for land management. The change in focus from visitor circulation to land classification reflected the Park Service's deepening commitment to good environmental stewardship. It signalled a greater attentiveness to natural resources, a shift in the scales between preservation and use, a change of outlook that national park historian Alfred Runte has called "a new seriousness." [1]

Mount Rainier National Park was zoned three times between 1964 and 1972, and each zoning had a lasting effect on the management of the park. In the first zoning, the entire park was classified as a "natural area" within the national park system. It was Director Hartzog's plan (approved by Secretary Udall in 1964) to classify all units in the national park system into three categories of areas: natural, historical, and recreational. According to Hartzog's scheme, each classification required a separate management concept to conform to its management plan. The primary goal for managing a natural area would be to perpetuate or restore its natural values. In such an area, historical and recreational values would be subordinated to natural values. Any significant historic features that were present would be maintained "to the extent compatible with the primary purpose for which the area was established." [2] Separate policy manuals were prepared for the three classifications and published in 1968.

The next important zoning of the park came in response to the Wilderness Act of 1964. In that landmark piece of legislation, Congress required all federal land management agencies, including the Park Service, to recommend areas for inclusion within the new wilderness preservation system. The NPS duly completed a wilderness proposal for Mount Rainier in 1972. Although the plan did not finally win legislative enactment until 1988, park officials administered the area as de facto wilderness for the next sixteen years. Meanwhile the park's backcountry management plan, completed in 1973, subdivided the area into a trail zone, crosscountry zone, and alpine zone.

The third and most detailed zoning of the park was contained in the master plan for Mount Rainier in 1972. Using the land classification system developed for natural areas, the authors of the master plan zoned Mount Rainier National Park into five separate areas. The first classification, defined as "general outdoor recreation areas," included the intensive use areas at Longmire, Paradise, Sunrise, White River, Ohanapecosh, Carbon River, Mowich Lake, and Cougar Rock, as well as the primary park road system. The second classification, defined as "natural environment areas," constituted a buffer zone around the former areas and included minor roads, secondary use areas, utility systems, and a strip along the park boundary near Crystal Mountain Ski Area. The third classification, defined as "outstanding natural areas," embraced the glacier and alpine areas on Mount Rainier together with the alpine area of the Tatoosh Range and the lowland forest along the Carbon River. The fourth classification, defined as "primitive areas," included the rest of the park area that was suitable for wilderness designation. Finally, the Longmire meadow fell into a fifth classification as the park's lone historic site. [3]

Subsequently the precise boundaries and uses of these zones underwent adjustments here and there, and three further historic districts were recognized, but by and large the zones established in 1972 provided a starting point for most management decisions in Mount Rainier during the next twenty years.


If zoning was the land management strategy of choice in the 1960s, wilderness preservation was its primary goal. NPS officials recognized wilderness to be a finite resource and a crucial national park value, and they dedicated themselves to protecting it from creeping development and overuse.

Wilderness preservation began with the question, what is wilderness? Preservationists generally agreed that wilderness was a state of mind, an entity so subjective in its substantive criteria that it resisted easy definition. Yet define it they must or wilderness would not have the protection of law. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The key word in this definition, "untrammeled," was itself subject to various interpretations; it connoted freedom from crowds, freedom from regulation, and freedom from physical traces of modem civilization. [4]

Given the subjective nature of the resource, wilderness managers came to recognize that it was impossible to preserve wilderness without protecting "the wilderness experience." In fact, park managers already had some familiarity with this problem; in view of the Park Service's dual mandate of preserving natural resources while providing for their use and enjoyment by the people, park managers had found it necessary from time to time to identify and protect "the national park experience." This varied with time and place. During the winter seasons at Paradise in the 1930s, for example, park managers tried to prevent the development of a carnival-like atmosphere on the ski slopes precisely because they believed it would cheapen the park experience. After World War II, park managers provided campfire wood in the campgrounds and stocked Mount Rainier's lakes with fish—two examples of measures which park managers took to provide visitors with what they perceived to be the proper park experience.

After the Wilderness Act of 1964, social scientists developed a more scientific method for defining "the wilderness experience" and "the national park experience." Their method was based on the concept of carrying capacity. Range and wildlife managers, years earlier, had developed the concept of carrying capacity to define the amount of use (usually by grazing animals) that an area of land could support on a sustained basis without exhausting the resource base. [5] The social scientists proposed that wilderness and national park areas had a "recreational carrying capacity." It was this concept which the Sierra Club's David Brower had conveyed in 1956. According to sociologist J.A. Wagar, recreational carrying capacity was "the level of recreational use an area can withstand while providing a sustained quality of recreation." [6]

So what was quality? To measure quality, the concept of recreational carrying capacity evolved over the next decade into a dual system of psychological and ecological components. The psychological component of recreational carrying capacity measured perceptions of crowding and user satisfaction through visitor questionnaires; the ecological component measured the effects of recreational activity on soils, vegetation, water quality, and wildlife behavior through field study and analysis. The goal was to identify levels of sustainable use which would assist managers in achieving their twin objectives of preserving the resource and providing for the public use and enjoyment of the resource. [7]

The concept of recreational carrying capacity first emerged on a policy level in the Park Service's backcountry management plans in the early 1970s. Backcountry management plans were put in place for Mount Rainier, Yosemite, Glacier, and several other national parks. Systemwide, the plan which attracted by far the most sociological study and national media attention was a plan for restricting recreational use of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. Mount Rainier's backcountry management plan generated a significant amount of local interest, and eventually Mount Rainier's backcountry users would be the subject of sophisticated sociological study too. As much as park officials hated to restrict wilderness users (they generally sympathized with the notion that freedom from regulation was one of the essential qualities of wilderness), they came to the conclusion that the alternative of unrestricted use was much worse. As one seasonal park ranger remarked, "I like to think that it isn't really wilderness when you have to find your assigned campsite along well-marked trails. It may not be wilderness but it's the best we have." [8]

The Backcountry Management Plan

The physical wear and tear on Mount Rainier's backcountry had reached disturbing proportions by the 1960s. Trails were gullied, shortcuts were ubiquitous and badly eroded, and parallel trails were established across many meadow areas. Heavily used campsites, easily recognizable from the sprawling bare patches that developed around them in the subalpine meadows, were sprinkled helter skelter around the most scenic beauty spots in the backcountry. Campfire rings abounded. [9]

People who experienced the park's backcountry then, and are familiar with it today, can testify to the backcountry's poor condition at the time that the backcountry management plan was adopted. Ranger John Wilcox, who transferred to Mount Rainier in 1972, found that backcountry users' impacts were much more noticeable and bothersome in Mount Rainier than in Glacier, where Wilcox had worked during the mid to late 1960s, despite the fact that Glacier saw more horse use than Mount Rainier. [10] Ranger Gene Casey, who joined the park staff in 1974, thought Mount Rainier National Park was the most "beat up" national park he had seen. [11] Superintendent John Rutter found the Mowich Lake area "beaten to death" in the 1960s; the lake shore was virtually denuded of vegetation. [12] Observations on the condition of the backcountry had no scientific foundation at this time—the park had no hard data to document the effects of backcountry users and horses on soil compaction, defoliation, water quality, or animal behavior, for example—but the impacts were plainly evident aesthetically.

Ranger John Dalle-Molle deserves credit as the first individual to recommend a backcountry management plan for Mount Rainier. Dalle-Molle wanted to restrict backcountry use in order to give these impacted areas a respite. Dalle-Molle was convinced that large parties were causing the most damage. A devastating example was the party of Boy Scouts who allowed a campfire to get out of control in Berkeley Park, creating an enormous fire ring in the lush meadow. Dalle-Molle took advantage of this unfortunate episode to make yearly measurements of the revegetation of the blackened area. His study, which eventually spanned six years, demonstrated how slowly Mount Rainier's subalpine meadows recovered from such scarring. Dalle-Molle's study was significant because it predated the systemwide initiative in 1972 to develop backcountry management plans for several national parks. [13]

The Seattle Mountaineers recognized that there was a problem at Mount Rainier too. In a 1969 report, "Recommendations for Future Development of Mt. Rainier National Park," the club's conservation committee commented that many fragile areas in the park could not tolerate the heavy use they received. The report specifically mentioned Spray Park, noting that the area "suffers from typical back-packer abuse.. .and is in much the same situation as many of Mt. Rainier's meadow areas." For the Seattle Mountaineers, the solution was to close the Mowich Lake and Westside roads, making access to some of these areas more difficult and the hikes more rewarding. [14]

Park Service officials sought to increase local public awareness of the problem by presenting a forum on "The National Park Service in the 70s and Beyond" at the University of Puget Sound. Held in observance of the Yellowstone centennial in 1972, the forum focused on the need to limit visitor access to the more popular national parks. "We're up to our ears in people," Mount Rainier Superintendent Daniel J. Tobin, Jr., told the Tacoma-area audience, "and people cause trouble in managing a wilderness resource." Tobin announced that the park was formulating plans to restrict vehicular traffic, limit the number of backcountry campsites, and institute a reservation system for overnight backcountry use. Regional Director John A. Rutter emphasized that the impending changes in Mount Rainier National Park were part of a larger trend toward limiting park use. The NPS had restricted vehicular traffic in Mount McKinley and Yosemite the previous summer, Rutter said, and park officials had reported that the restrictions were "very well accepted" by the public. This forum, together with other NPS announcements on the coming backcountry management plan, received sympathetic coverage in the local press. [15]

Superintendent Tobin directed his ranger staff to develop a backcountry management plan for Mount Rainier during the winter of 1972-73. The rangers aimed the plan mainly at horse parties and overnight campers, who were thought to be causing far more damage to the resources than day hikers, picnickers, and other day users. In the plan, horse use was virtually eliminated in the subalpine areas of the backcountry. Horse parties could only camp in designated sites and no more than six horses were allowed at one site. [16] As for backcountry campers, the plan restricted their activity in three ways.

First, the plan instituted a more restrictive policy on campfires in the backcountry. Campfires were only allowed in designated sites; no campfires were allowed in subalpine areas. (There was an unforseen consequence of this policy: the amount of litter around backcountry campsites fell off remarkably, suggesting that people who cooked over stoves tended to keep a cleaner camp than people who cooked over open fires.) [17]

Second, the plan zoned the backcountry into trail, crosscountry, and alpine zones. In the trail zones, camping was only permitted at designated sites and no more than two tents could occupy a site. In the crosscountry zone, the overnight user had to follow certain guidelines in selecting a campsite, which included minimum distances away from the trail and away from any standing or running water. No more than six people could camp in a site, larger groups had to use group sites. In the alpine zone, every identifiable route of ascent on Mount Rainier was assigned a capacity: three parties per route on the southern side of the mountain; two per route on the northern side. Large climbing parties had to use Camp Muir or Camp Schurman.

Third, the plan set limits on the number of people which each trail zone or crosscountry zone could accommodate overnight. When these capacities were reached, no more permits for the area would be issued. For the convenience of the public, backcountry reservations could be made through the mail.

The public accepted the backcountry management plan with more or less equanimity. When Superintendent Tobin explained that the restrictions were necessary to stem the proliferation of unplanned trails and campsites, the trampling of meadows, and the contamination of backcountry streams by human wastes, local people who were familiar with Mount Rainier's backcountry generally knew what he was talking about. [18]

The one source of visitor dissatisfaction was the reservation system. After the experience of the first summer, the authors of the plan readily acknowledged that this part of the plan was a mistake and the park administration henceforth abandoned it. In theory, the reservation system was a convenience for the public: eighty percent of backcountry sites could be booked in advance by mail, while twenty percent would be allotted to people on a first come-first served basis at the park. The problem with the reservation system, park officials soon discovered, was that people in Seattle and Tacoma would make reservations for three or four different weekends with the expectation of going to the park on the first weekend when the weather appeared favorable. As a result, many people who drove up to the park in the hope of obtaining one of the first come-first serve campsites found themselves out of luck, while many backcountry campsites stood vacant. The reservation system was admirably suited for the Wonderland Trail hiker, who might wish to plot out the 93-mile trip around the mountain weeks ahead of the event; but it utterly failed the spontaneous weekend backpacker, who was apt to throw some gear in the trunk of the car on a Friday evening, check the late-night weather forecast, and drive to the park next morning. This latter type of backcountry user occurred commonly in the Puget Sound area, where the third largest population of backpacking enthusiasts in the nation (after Denver and San Francisco) lived within a three-hour drive of Mount Rainier. [19]

After the park administration dropped the unpopular reservation system in 1973 it still had another bee in its bonnet—a cantankerous individual by the name of Larry Penberthy. As an experienced mountaineer and founder of Mountain Safety Research, Inc. (MSR), Penberthy objected strongly to the restrictions which the NPS placed on the most heavily used climbing routes on Mount Rainier. What made this mountaineer and engineer such a noteworthy critic, however, was his reputation for filing lawsuits "at the snap of a carabiner." [20] In the 1960s Penberthy had won a hefty settlement against a manufacturer of climbing equipment who allegedly infringed on his patented hardware, and around 1970 he had threatened similar action against the Seattle-based cooperative, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). As Penberthy began his one-man crusade against the park's backcountry management plan, many NPS officials felt he was laying the groundwork for a suit against the government. [21]

Penberthy opened his campaign at a public hearing on the proposed master plan held at Longmire in January 1974. Addressing Superintendent Tobin, Regional Director Rutter, and other NPS officials at the hearing, Penberthy complained that the master plan had been prepared by "outsiders" who did not understand the local population's attachment to the park. "A park should be a park," Penberthy testified, "a place for the benefit and enjoyment of people. A place for restoration of tranquility. It should not be a wilderness. If it is, then lock the gates and put on guards. We need a park for the Sunday people, the weekend people." Penberthy was the only member of the public to speak at the hearing. Regional Director Rutter, adjourning the meeting after Penberthy had finished, commented to a reporter that it was unfortunate only one point of view had been presented. [22]

Penberthy then began writing letters to Superintendent Tobin, requesting permits for large climbing parties that he knew would not be granted under the new regulations. The requests appeared to be in good faith, but park officials thought that he was probably preparing a legal case. Penberthy also complained when the Park Service did not supply him with a final copy of the backcountry management plan as it was printed in The Federal Register on June 24, 1975. That summer, after the park denied his request for a three-day climbing permit, Penberthy filed suit. [23]

In Penberthy v. Tobin et al., the court upheld the right of the federal government to restrict park use. But the court also ruled that Penberthy's allegation that the NPS had established "arbitrary and capricious" restrictions was not without merit. Consequently, the court ordered the Park Service to drop the restriction on the number of parties using each climbing route, to prepare an annual climbing report, and to submit any further restrictions to the public review process. [24]

The Penberthy case underscored the need for hard data in determining the recreational carrying capacity of the backcountry. There was no scientific method, no systematic consideration of psychological and ecological factors in the preparation of the original backcountry management plan. The rangers simply picked out suitable campsites and established a limit for each backcountry zone based on their own experience and intuition. After a few years, they found that their limits had been too low, and the park administration relaxed them somewhat. When Penberthy sued the NPS a second time in 1986, the park administration had scientific evidence of the impacts which backcountry use had on environmental quality, and the judge dismissed the case. [25]

The backcountry management plan produced significant changes in the "wilderness experience" at Mount Rainier. Backpackers now entered a more regulated environment, an area where backcountry rangers were apt to make them show that they had the necessary permit, and where the permit itself required that they camp in certain designated backcountry camps or crosscountry zones and follow certain camp procedures. The camp procedures had a slightly antiseptic quality, as backpackers now cooked over stoves, filtered or boiled their water, hung their food at night, and conscientiously packed out every particle of trash. Gone were the days when backpackers could camp in their favorite subalpine meadow or next to their favorite mountain tam; now they typically camped in forest settings like that found at the new Devil's Dream Camp, where eight numbered sites and a privy were staggered up the trail a half mile below Indian Henry's Hunting Ground. Yet if something in the wilderness experience had been lost in all of this, it was only necessary to contemplate the alternative of unrestricted use to see how much had been preserved.

Backcountry shelter at Indian Henry's Hunting Ground
Backcountry shelter at Indian Henry's Hunting Ground. This was one of several shelters that were eliminated under the backcountry management plan. The shelters were in disrepair and the ground around them tended to be severely trampled. (Photo courtesy of Mount Rainier National Park.)

The backcountry management plan had the desired effect on the condition of the wilderness. Many areas that had been denuded by trampling began to recover in the 1970s and 1980s. Trail crews stabilized eroding sections of the trail, obliterated unplanned trails, covered up shortcuts with debris, and took out a number of overnight shelters that had fallen into disrepair. The latter project included the destruction of the old three-sided shelters at Van Trump Park, Golden Lakes, Deer Creek, Berkeley Park, Lake James, Mystic Lake, Klapatche Park, and Indian Henry's Hunting Ground. [26]

For all that it accomplished, it is an open question whether the park's backcountry management plan ever really identified a recreational carrying capacity for the park's backcountry. While park officials generally agree that the condition of the backcountry improved markedly during the 1970s and 1980s, their explanations for this vary. Some feel that the restrictions placed on horse parties and large groups had the most dramatic effect, while others feel that it was the many small changes in the way backpackers camped that made the most difference. Either view underscored the fact that the recreational carrying capacity could not be expressed as a flat population limit but rather had to take into consideration the character and composition of the recreationists themselves. Still another view suggests that the condition of the backcountry improved primarily because overall backcountry use peaked in the 1970s and then declined. One interpretation of this "peak" is based on demographics: baby-boomers invaded the backcountry in force when they reached their young adult years, and retreated from the backcountry when they started to have children. Another interpretation of the "peak" is based on climate change: beginning in the late 1960s, warmer, drier weather made Mount Rainier's backcountry more accessible. Both of these interpretations suggest that trends in backcountry use over the past three decades were largely independent of the backcountry management plan. Whatever combination of factors were at work in correcting the problem, park officials generally agree that the level of backcountry use overshot the backcountry's recreational carrying capacity for a time in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Special Concerns in the Alpine Zone

The backcountry management plan defined the alpine zone as "those areas on Mount Rainier generally above 7,000 feet or elsewhere on glaciers." [27] Except for the Paradise ice caves area and the two heavily-travelled corridors leading to camps Muir and Schurman, the alpine zone saw little use by non-climbers. The backcountry management plan stated: "The climbing zone is generally the domain of persons wishing to experience the thrills of snow and ice climbing and glacier navigation... .The zone is accordingly managed to provide opportunities for a type of wilderness experience found in few other areas of the contiguous 48 states. It is the climbers who are the primary beneficiaries of this opportunity." [28] These climbers numbered in the thousands each summer.

Mount Rainier's extensive alpine zone presented special, and in some ways unique, challenges for backcountry management. These challenges included visitor safety, problems of crowding, and human impacts on the fragile ecosystem. The severity of weather conditions in this zone, combined with the growing number of people willing to confront this extreme environment, created new challenges for the park administration which had few parallels in the national park system.

Search and Rescue (SAR). Most search and rescue operations in the alpine zone involved the evacuation of injured climbers; some required bringing out bodies after fatal climbing accidents or airplane crashes; others entailed searching for missing persons.

Despite mounting costs for search and rescue operations and a surfeit of volunteer SAR groups in the Pacific Northwest who were willing to help, the park administration normally took the lead in organizing SAR operations on Mount Rainier. There were several reasons for this. First, quick response time was a critical concern in most search and rescue operations; typically the emergency call came late in the day and the SAR team would be pushing daylight as it started toward the scene of the accident. The park staff, with its contingent of experienced "climbing rangers" assigned to the Paradise district, was in a much better position than any volunteer SAR group to respond quickly to an emergency. Sometimes the park administration used Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) guides who were at or close to the scene. [29] Second, park officials could readily coordinate with the Army for helicopter support. The U.S. Army helicopter stationed at Gray Army Air Base at Fort Lewis, assisted with medical evacuations on numerous occasions in the 1970s. [30] Army helicopters were also used to insert SAR teams into inaccessible areas on the east, north, and west sides of the mountain, lowering rangers to the ground by a cable device known as a "jungle penetrator." Helicopters began assisting with high altitude (above 10,000 feet) SAR operations in the 1980s. Helicopters were also used for "short haul" rescue operations, in which a ranger and litter were carried in a sling below the helicopter to the scene of the accident. [31]

A third reason that the NPS did not rely on volunteer SAR groups was that these operations were frequently dangerous as teams worked at night or in adverse weather conditions. Use of volunteers always carried the risk that the volunteers themselves would get into trouble. Volunteers could assist park rangers but they were rarely put in charge of search and rescue operations. The NPS most often deployed volunteers in long ground evacuations or searches—the most labor intensive kinds of SAR operations. [32]

Beginning around 1990 the park administration had to make do with only five or six climbing rangers on staff. Faced with the need to assign more rangers to the front country where the greatest number of visitors were, the park administration adopted a new strategy in 1994 that it called "preventive search and rescue." The principle of preventive search and rescue was to place more emphasis on climber education in the hopes of reducing the number of climbing accidents. In the past, climbing rangers were assigned the task of registering climbers at Paradise at which time they checked each party's equipment, evaluated its level of experience, and dispensed information on routes, snow conditions, and the weather forecast. Under the new system, interpretive rangers had the job of registering climbers at Paradise, while climbing rangers were stationed at Camp Muir. This not only placed the climbing rangers higher on the mountain in case of emergency, it gave the climbing rangers an opportunity to visit with each climbing party in a more conducive setting. At Paradise most climbers were eager to get going and had little patience for a ranger's counsel; once they had reached Camp Muir, however, they were ready for a rest and some instruction, and whatever information they obtained had more immediate application. Chief Ranger John Krambrink expressed tentative satisfaction with the outcome of this new system after the first year. [33]

The need for SAR highlighted the fact that despite the many successful ascents of Mount Rainier each year, the upper mountain was an exceptionally dangerous environment for park visitors and employees alike. Tragedy struck the SAR team in August 1995 when a seasonal climbing ranger and an SCA park employee were killed in a fall on the Emmons Glacier. The two men were enroute to the 13,400-foot level to aid a climber with a broken ankle when the accident occurred. The ranger was in his second season at Mount Rainier, while the SCA park employee was in his first season. [34]

Crowding on the Climbing Routes. Climbers encountered extremes of solitude and crowding in the alpine zone. Climbers who were in search of solitude could probably find solitude during certain times of the year or days of the week or on lesser-used routes—and no doubt the cold, austere environment above 7,000 feet tended to accentuate whatever degree of solitude there was to be found. But climbers who took the standard routes on weekends during the summer had a very different experience. They were apt to follow a beaten path over the snow, compete for bunk and cooking space at Camp Muir, and share the summit with a few dozen other climbers. As the number of climbers rose sharply from about 2,000 annually in the late 1960s to 3,997 in 1972 and 4,471 in 1973, park officials worried that crowded conditions along the major climbing routes would diminish the wilderness experience. Thus, in the backcountry management plan of 1973, they limited the number of climbing parties on each route to two per day on the northern side and three per day on the southern side of the mountain.

The NPS eliminated these quotas in the aftermath of the court's decision in Penberthy v. Tobin et al.. In the revised backcountry management plan of 1981, the only use limits imposed in the alpine zone were for two designated climber camps, Muir and Schurman. The park administration felt justified in relaxing its policy because the number of climbers appeared to be leveling off. [35] Moreover, a 1980 survey of climbers indicated that most climbers did not feel that the mountain was too crowded. Park officials discerned that there was an important difference between backpackers and climbers in what they wanted to get out of their park experience: by and large obtaining a feeling of solitude mattered much more to the former group than the latter.

Nevertheless, park officials remained uneasy as the number of summit attempts reached 9,600 in 1993. If the upward trend continued, the park administration would eventually have to limit the number of climbers. In the meantime, it sought to raise the recreational carrying capacity of the mountain by spreading out use. After RMI's contract expired in 1992, park officials considered allowing a second guide service to offer trips on the Emmons Glacier route via Camp Schurman. RMI was not interested, and it remained to be seen whether another concessioner could be found or what the public response would be if the park administration moved toward a new quota system. [36]

Crowding at the Climber Camps. Camp Muir presented unique problems. At 10,000 feet elevation, the camp was a popular destination for day hikers out of Paradise. It was also a popular overnight shelter for independent climbers, a base of operations for the guide service, and an important staging area for search and rescue. Increasingly crowded conditions at the camp in the late 1960s and early 1970s raised a number of important questions. How should the limited facilities be shared among these different user categories? How should sewage and water supply problems be resolved? Should the area be given wilderness protection?

There were three old stone buildings at Camp Muir: the Guide Hut built in 1916, the Muir Hut built in 1921, and a storage building (date unknown). In 1969, the park administration built an A-frame rangers' shelter (the Butler Shelter) and two new privies. The following year, it authorized RMI to build a prefabricated client shelter. Now the buildings were divided functionally between (1) the public (Muir Hut and privy), (2) RMI and its clients (Guide Hut, client shelter, and privy), and (3) the rangers (Butler Shelter and storage building). The new buildings did not have the aesthetic appeal of the stone structures and the camp as a whole had a haphazard appearance, yet the people who frequented Camp Muir generally felt that the camp's rough character was appropriate to the setting and a favorable part of the climbing experience. [37]

In 1973 there were 4,790 visitors to Camp Muir, approximately triple the number ten years earlier. About 3,000 of these visitors were overnight climbers, more than ten times the number a decade earlier. Such intensive use created problems of human waste disposal, particularly since human waste decomposed very slowly at such a high elevation. The Park Service built two new privies in 1969, each consisting of a wood frame building mounted over a 10-foot deep pit which was excavated into the bedrock and lined with concrete blocks. This system replaced two privies of unknown age which simply discharged wastes over a cliff onto the Cowlitz Glacier. Once each season, a ranger was assigned the duty of removing the solid wastes from these new pit toilets using a post hole digger and shovel, and placing it in barrels to be airlifted out by helicopter. [38]

In 1985 the Park Service installed a solar-assisted toilet at Camp Muir. The unit was designed to separate liquids from solids and evaporate liquids using passive solar energy. The unit was experimental, being the first of its kind to be used at high elevation in the Cascade Mountains. It required numerous refinements. A decade after its introduction, the park administration counted the solar-assisted toilet a mild success, although it still had concerns about liquid waste disposal in the unit. [39]

Mount Rainier's second climber camp, Camp Schurman, was a lesser concern. In the early 1960s, the Park Service authorized the Seattle Mountaineers to erect a quonset hut at the heavily used campsite near Steamboat's Prow. In the course of the decade the number of climbers using the Emmons Glacier route grew far beyond the hut's limited capacity to accommodate them all. By agreement with the climbers, the Park Service took over the quonset hut for use by rangers, principally for equipment storage. The building also functioned as an emergency shelter. [40]

By the 1980s, Camp Schurman was attracting an average of ten day-hikers per day during the summer as well as numerous climbing parties who pitched their tents at the site on their way to the summit. Such a gathering of hikers and climbers at 10,000 feet elevation created another human waste disposal problem similar to that at Camp Muir. In 1982, the park administration installed privacy screens at Camp Schurman in an effort to concentrate fecal matter and make cleanup easier. [41]

Human Waste Disposal on the Climbing Routes. In the early 1980s, park officials began hearing complaints from climbers about the unpleasantness of encountering deposits of human waste on the upper mountain. Human waste deposits were most commonly encountered on the Emmons Glacier, Ingraham Flats, the top of Disappointment Cleaver, and Columbia Crest. Moreover, it seemed that human waste on the upper mountain might be linked to higher bacteria counts in stream run-off from these areas. The accumulation of human waste at high elevations was not unique to Mount Rainier; a 1980 report to Congress on "The State of the Parks" indicated that this was a significant environmental threat in other national parks with alpine areas too. Between 1982 and 1986, Mount Rainier National Park took the lead in developing systems for high altitude human waste management. [42]

There were five elements in the human waste management program. First, there was the existing program of helicopter support for removing the several barrels of waste which accumulated annually in the pit privies at Camps Muir and Schurman. Second, there was the aforementioned solar-assisted toilet, designed under supervision of the Denver Service Center and installed at Camp Muir in 1985. Third, the park administration experimented with privacy screens—both at Camp Schurman and on Ingraham Flats. This system, requiring frequent ranger patrols to insure site cleanliness, later had to be abandoned. Fourth, park rangers dispensed "blue bags" to climbers at Camps Muir and Schurman so that they could carry out their own defecated material. This method proved most successful. Finally, the park staff made a concerted effort to educate the climbing community about the problem. This effort included the preparation of an educational handout, produced jointly by the Park Service and Recreational Equipment, Inc.; posting of weatherproof signs on the privacy screens and in and around the huts and privies at the two climber camps; cooperation by RMI guides in informing clients of the problem at Camp Muir; and completion of a climbers survey by the Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Washington, in 1985 to give park personnel an idea of how effectively they were communicating the problem to the climbing community. [43] Park staff felt encouraged by the overall results of this program. Yet faced with a continuing upward trend in the number of summit attempts each year, officials were skeptical whether the problem of human waste had finally been surmounted.

A proposal in 1994 to require a $100 permit fee for each summit attempt was aimed in large part at this problem. Fees collected from climbers would be used to defray costs of human waste management as well as search and rescue operations. Effective July 1, 1995, however, the climbing fee was set at $15 per person per climb (regardless of the number of nights) or $25 per person per year. [44]

Human Impact on Alpine Flora. In the 1970s, park officials began to suspect that climbers were having an impact on the flora in certain heavily used areas of the alpine zone. Their concern focused on the fellfields located between 7,000 and 10,000 feet elevation, where tiny plants grew in the loose, pumicy soil and lay dormant under snow for ten months out of the year. Vegetation studies by Ola Edwards, completed in the early 1980s, confirmed that heavy use of some areas was causing defoliation. [45]

The park administration tried to reduce human impacts in the heavily traveled Muir corridor by requiring climbers to camp only on snowfields. Elsewhere, park officials sought to reduce human impacts by stepping up visitor education, monitoring vegetative conditions, and increasing ranger patrols in particularly sensitive areas. [46]

Designating a Wilderness Area

The Wilderness Act of 1964 called for the Park Service to study all lands under its jurisdiction and submit proposals to Congress for adding appropriate lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The NPS made little headway on this task while George Hartzog was director because he believed that wilderness designation within the national park system was redundant. Soon after Hartzog retired, the NPS made wilderness recommendations for dozens of national parks and swamped the process. Mount Rainier's 1973 wilderness recommendation, however, never reached Congress.

In the mid-1980s Superintendent Guse revived the wilderness proposal. Guse wanted to enclose even more of the park in wilderness than the NPS had proposed in 1973. For example, he wanted to include the well-traveled corridor between Paradise and Camp Muir whereas this area had been excluded from the wilderness recommendation in 1973. In essence he wanted everything but the existing roads and developed areas committed to wilderness protection.

The regional office held back the Mount Rainier wilderness proposal until NPS planners had completed similar proposals for North Cascades and Olympic National Parks. The three wilderness proposals were then combined in one bill, which Congress enacted on November 16, 1988. Title III of the Washington Park Wilderness Act designated 216,855 acres of Mount Rainier National Park, or approximately 95 percent of the park's total land area, as the "Mount Rainier Wilderness." [47] As such it became a component of the National Wilderness Preservation System and subject to all the protections of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Together with adjacent areas under Forest Service management which had been designated wilderness in 1984, the Mount Rainier Wilderness afforded a greater degree of protection from threatened development. [48]


The park administration contended with the same basic problems in the front country that it did in the backcountry: environmental degradation, crowding, and the legitimate desire of the national park visitor to escape regimentation. With regard to environmental degradation, the main strategy for the front country was to move visitor concentrations to lower elevations on the mountain. This concept had originated with the Mission 66 plan for Mount Rainier yet it was not until the 1970s that it really bore fruit, with campground closures at Paradise and Sunrise and the removal of park headquarters to the Tahoma Woods administrative site.

Alleviation of crowding in the front country was more complicated. Historically, park planners had recommended additional roads and development areas to disperse visitor use, beginning with the Westside Road in the 1920s, continuing with Sunrise and the Eastside Road in the 1930s, and ending with the Stevens Canyon Road in the 1950s. Now that the park was fully developed, park planners had to look for other ways to alleviate crowding. Their efforts focused on the existing development areas and automobile use. Reconfiguration of traffic flow and parking lots at Paradise, Longmire, and Sunrise helped somewhat, but what planners wanted most was to introduce mass transit and reduce or even eliminate automobile access to some areas.

The master plan of 1972 conceived of mass transit as the wave of the future for Mount Rainier National Park. Twenty-three years later, the same concept may be part of the new general management plan. The problem with mass transit is that it runs up against another primary objective of park planning, and that is to preserve the visitors' sense of freedom in the national park. For the majority of front country users, driving their private automobiles over scenic roads continues to be the quintessential national park experience. [49] How to alleviate crowding without subjecting park visitors to unwanted regimentation is a problem that continues to confound park planning efforts.

Developed Areas

The 1972 master plan listed fifteen "developed areas" in the park excluding the road system. Only three of the fifteen—Tahoma Woods (just outside of the park), Cougar Rock, and Stevens Canyon Entrance—were of recent origin. The other twelve were Paradise, Longmire, Sunrise, Ohanapecosh, Nisqually Entrance, Carbon River Entrance, White River Entrance, Tipsoo Lake, Camp Muir, Mowich Lake, and Carbon River-Ipsut Creek, all of which dated from before World War II. The master plan classified all of these areas except Camp Muir and Tahoma Woods as Class II lands, or "General Outdoor Recreation Areas." The master plan stated that "the area included in this classification is sufficiently large to accommodate projected use." [50] There would be no more developed areas in Mount Rainier National Park; by and large, the park facilities would be renovated or replaced but not expanded.

The master plan called for removal of some facilities. Automobile campgrounds at Sunrise and Mowich Lake would be changed to walk-in campgrounds, and the campground at Paradise would be eliminated altogether. The administrative offices at Longmire would be replaced with new offices at Tahoma Woods. Over the next few years these plans were implemented. The changes to these facilities represented significant planning and policy choices which originated in the Mission 66 era but only came to fruition in the 1970s.

It is not clear why Mount Rainier's alpine car campgrounds persisted as long as they did, for the development of Cougar Rock campground in 1960-61 was supposed to have eliminated the need for them. The environmental costs of operating public campgrounds at such high elevations were perhaps most evident at Sunrise, where the alpine tundra vegetation was especially vulnerable to trampling and wind erosion. There were two campgrounds at Sunrise in the early 1960s: a small, upper campground adjacent to the visitor center and a lower one by Shadow Lake. Superintendent Rutter closed the upper campground around 1965 but kept the lower one open. It was Rutter's plan to expand the White River campground before closing the lower Sunrise campground. While awaiting funds with which to expand the White River campground, Rutter had his maintenance division renovate the CCC-era comfort stations in the lower Sunrise campground. In 1973, Superintendent Tobin converted this campground to walk-in campsites (mainly for the benefit of Wonderland Trail users). The comfort stations were closed and all but one were removed a few years later. [51]

Still more surprising was the decision in the early 1960s to develop a new public campground at Paradise. Apparently the idea was to redevelop the old campground area into a day-use picnic area in order to compensate for the planned removal of the Paradise Lodge and horse concession. The newly-built campground was located on the inside of a wide horseshoe bend in the two-way road to Paradise, just below the picnic area. But Superintendent Rutter soon recognized that the new campground was ill-conceived, for it was built in a depression that stayed snowbound until late July and had poor drainage for the remainder of the summer. In 1973, the park administration began operations to remove all facilities from this campground, and in the 1980s an effort was made to restore the area to a natural state. [52]

Perhaps the reason Mount Rainier's high-elevation campgrounds persisted as long as they did was that the low-elevation sites posed their own set of problems, mostly relating to visitor safety and maintenance. In 1963, debris from a massive rockfall on Little Tahoma came to rest within a few miles of the White River campground. This striking event served to remind everyone that Mount Rainier's glacial river valleys were pathways for the mountain's most destructive forces. In 1967, a glacial outburst flood inundated the former Tahoma Creek campground after it had been converted to a picnic area. Mission 66 plans to develop a campground at Klickitat Creek never materialized, while plans to develop a campground at Mowich Lake were scaled back in the 1960s as it became evident that that area was already sustaining too much use. In 1977, heavy rains caused extensive flood damage to the Ipsut Creek and Sunshine Point campgrounds. Even the old Longmire campground fell into disfavor. The campground was located in the Nisqually River floodplain. Moreover, the access road took the visitor through the Longmire administrative area and across the old Nisqually bridge. The park administration consigned the Longmire campground to overflow use during the 1970s, and finally closed it to the public in 1989. [53]

When the NPS acquired the Tahoma Woods administrative site in 1961 the intent was to move all administrative offices out of Longmire and convert the Longmire area entirely to public accommodations and concession employee housing. This did not work out as planned. Budget cuts set back the timetable by several years; the NPS did not move park headquarters out of Longmire until 1977. By the time the move did occur, NPS officials had decided to keep various administrative functions, including the large maintenance operation, in Longmire. For a while all division chiefs had their offices at park headquarters. This proved to be awkward, and within a few years only the superintendent, administrative officer, and concession specialist kept their offices in Tahoma Woods while the other division chiefs had moved their offices back to Longmire. This arrangement has continued to the present day. Consequently, the NPS retained a strong administrative presence in Longmire, which functioned as a kind of field office to the headquarters at Tahoma Woods. Although the outcome is not at all what park planners had envisioned for Longmire, the arrangement has proven satisfactory from the standpoint of administrative efficiency. [54]

Tahoma Woods has come closer to fulfilling its intended role as an employee village. Out of 26 employee residences originally planned for Tahoma Woods, 14 were built. The NPS has since acquired a number of mobile homes and placed them at the site as well. This compares to some 30 permanent and seasonal employee residences at Longmire. Generally the competition for housing at Tahoma Woods is keener, especially among families with school-age children, who attend the nearby Columbia Crest Elementary/Middle School or Eatonville High School. Approximately one third of the park's permanent employees avail themselves of government housing at one of these two sites, while the rest live in the nearby communities of Ashford, Elbe, Eatonville, and Morton. [55]

The NPS provides seasonal employee housing at Tahoma Woods, Longmire, Paradise, Sunrise, Ohanapecosh, White River, and Carbon River. Except for a few mobile homes, all of this housing dates back to the Mission 66 era or earlier. In 1992, the Denver Service Center contracted with the architectural and engineering firm of Jones and Jones to design a new employee apartment building at Paradise to replace the old Paradise ski lodge. The plan, estimated to cost $4.2 million, is expected to reach completion in the spring of 1997, providing a total of eight apartments for 26 employees. [56]

Roads and Transportation

No new roads or mass transit systems have been developed in the park since 1965. In view of this issue's importance, this section discusses various unimplemented proposals to change the park's road and transportation systems. The section ends with a review of the partial closure of the Westside Road in 1992, which constitutes the only significant change in the park's road and transportation system in the past thirty years.

Sunrise Tramway Proposal. The master plan of 1972 proposed the development of an aerial tramway between the White River valley and Sunrise. The objective of this proposal was "to eventually remove the automobile completely" from the Sunrise area, reserving it for pedestrian use only. This would alleviate crowding and reduce the level of visitor impacts on the environment. As another benefit, the existing road cut on Sunrise Ridge would be restored to a natural condition. [57]

Although the Sunrise tramway proposal never got to the stage of a detailed engineering study, planners had a rough idea of what it would entail. A direct route of ascent from the White River Valley would involve an elevation rise of 2,500 feet; if this were infeasible, a more gradual route of ascent would be from the east, traversing Sunrise Ridge, requiring an elevation gain of 2,700 feet with some nearly horizontal stretches along the way. Depending on the route, the tramway would carry 300 to 500 passengers per hour (3,000 to 5,000 per day), or about half of the peak daily use by private automobilists. Construction costs for a tramway and terminal buildings would be several million dollars. Visitors would presumably be charged a fee to ride the tramway.

The public response to the proposal was strongly negative. Fully 92 percent of those who commented specifically on the tramway were opposed to it. Respondents mainly opposed the tramway on the grounds that a tramway would degrade the beauty of the area, that a shuttle bus would be less intrusive, or that the existing road made a tramway unnecessary. Park planners eliminated the tramway proposal from the final master plan approved in 1976. [58]

Carbon River and Mowich Lake Road Proposals. Park planners wanted to eliminate automobile use of the Carbon River and Mowich Lake roads, but were thwarted here as well. The master plan of 1972 commented on the Carbon River-Ipsut Creek area,

This unique resource area of the park is particularly appropriate for the immediate implementation of a visitor circulation system using vehicles other than automobiles. Unlike the loop road accesses to the heavily visited areas of the park, access to this area is by dead-end road. [59]

The master plan proposed to develop a parking area at the park boundary and to limit access to foot, bicycle, and public mini-bus traffic. As for Mowich Lake, the master plan stated,

Removal of the automobiles from the vicinity of this highly scenic area would greatly increase the quality of the visitor experience. Although implementation of alternate methods of visitor access is not as simple as at Carbon River-Ipsut Creek, efforts should be made to keep automobiles as far from the lake as possible. Consideration should be given to ending the road at the park boundary and using leased parking space on private land outside. [60]

Subsequently, Park Service officials quietly dropped the proposal to close the Carbon River Road to private vehicular traffic. A potential problem was how to schedule mini-bus service in the spring and fall when the area received considerable use but not enough to make public transit economically feasible. Furthermore, there would be no cost savings on road maintenance, since the road would still be maintained for the mini-busses and administrative use. Probably the biggest factor in the plan's abandonment, however, was the concern that closing the road to private vehicular traffic would only turn away visitors rather than get them out of their cars. This visitor use would then be diverted to other areas of the park which were even less able to absorb it. [61]

Park Service officials advanced the proposal to close the Mowich Lake Road somewhat further. For one thing, this proposal had the support of the Seattle Mountaineers. [62] More importantly it had a clearer objective: to give the much-trodden shore around Mowich Lake a chance to recover. In order to win public support for the road closure, the Park Service proposed to rehabilitate the historic Grindstone Trail from the park boundary to Mowich Lake. This would be both more direct and a more pleasurable hiking experience than walking along the packed soil and rock of the roadbed. [63] For one reason or another, the road closure never happened.

As park planners worked on the general management plan for Mount Rainier, various options for limiting access to Mowich Lake were once again under discussion, including the possible addition of a Mowich Lake entrance station at the Paul Peak trailhead area.

Mass Transit Study Proposal. While the transportation issue in the northwest corner of the park was relatively self-contained, the problem of congestion elsewhere in the park was more complex because the south and east sides of the park were linked together by the Stevens Canyon Road. Indeed, one of the purposes of the Stevens Canyon Road had been to facilitate the one-day scenic loop drive around the mountain. The park's through-road system did not easily lend itself to mass transit. Visitors would be less willing to accept mandatory public transit on a through-road than a dead-end road. If visitors had to leave their private vehicles at Longmire to take a shuttle bus to Paradise, for example, they would likely feel frustrated at being unable to continue over the Stevens Canyon Road. This problem notwithstanding, Mount Rainier's master plan called for a transportation study "to determine the exact methods required to satisfy present and future needs." [64] The master plan explicitly aimed to reduce private vehicle use in the park.

Funding for the transportation study was delayed for many years. Finally, in 1987, Superintendent Guse initiated a study of visitor attitudes toward a potential mass transit system. This study, carried out by the Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Washington, used visitor surveys to test the public's receptivity to six mass transit scenarios involving various combinations of return-trip shuttles on the Nisqually-Paradise, Sunrise, and Carbon River roads. The study revealed that visitor opinion was almost evenly divided, with many people holding strong views for or against the proposal. [65]

In 1993 the NPS contracted with a Denver-based company, BRW Inc. to evaluate transportation needs in Mount Rainier National Park. BRW's study included an analysis of summer and winter visitor circulation patterns and an evaluation of the feasibility of implementing a mass transit or Visitor Transportation System (VTS) in order to reduce automobile congestion. On June 2, 1994, the park convened a Transportation Alternatives Workshop at which BRW presented its findings and preliminary VTS alternatives. Regional transit planning authorities attended the workshop together with representatives from a wide range of organizations interested in Mount Rainier National Park. After the workshop, BRW modified the VTS alternatives in light of public comments and the Park Service's review and submitted its final report in 1995. [66]

The Park Service is currently incorporating the VTS alternatives into the park's new General Management Plan (GMMP). The GMP team is going into greater depth than does the BRW study in assessing the transportation system's environmental impacts and the VTS has yet to take final form.

West Entrance Station. The park entrance stations, in recent years, have experience traffic backups during peak periods of visitation. The problem has at times been acute at the Nisqually or west entrance station, where traffic backups may extend west of the park boundary for as much as one mile. The backup inhibits access to commercial properties and creates a hazard for vehicles entering or leaving those establishments. Moreover, the stop and go traffic under the dense forest canopy at this location causes a buildup of exhaust fumes, which is an annoyance to park visitors and a health risk to park employees who work or reside at Nisqually Entrance. Other problems with Nisqually Entrance include the limited amount of parking for visitors requiring backcountry permits, and the dark and damp atmosphere of this location.

In 1984-85, the NPS considered three alternative locations for the west entrance: Kautz Creek, West Sunshine Point, and the Westside Road junction. Questions of where the inevitable traffic backup would be least objectionable had to be weighed against other factors such as space for vehicle parking, security for entrance station personnel, and efficiency of fee collection. Another alternative was to upgrade the existing layout, mainly by adding a second kiosk and third eastbound traffic lane. [67] The park administration favored the West Sunshine Point location. [68] Due to fund limitations, however, none of these alternatives was implemented.

Westside Road Closure. Glacial outburst floods have afflicted the Westside Road periodically. A major glacial outburst flood occurred at the South Tahoma Glacier in August 1967 which devastated the Tahoma Creek campground. Glacial outburst floods of lesser magnitude occurred in 1970 and 1971. After a fifteen-year hiatus, Tahoma Creek experienced another series of glacial outburst floods beginning in 1986. A flood in 1987 inundated the Tahoma Creek picnic area. A pair of floods in July 1988 deposited mud on the Westside Road from the former picnic area to just above Fish Creek and diverted all of Tahoma Creek's streamflow to the westernmost stream channel flanking the roadbed. Heavy rains in mid-October 1988, perhaps combined with additional glacial outburst floods, resulted in erosion of the roadbed and collapse of two sections of road just below Dry Creek. After the road was repaired in 1989, more high water episodes during the winter of 1989-90 caused additional erosional damage. [69]

In May 1989, the park administration prepared an environmental assessment on the proposed flood damage repair which addressed two alternatives: (1) no action (leaving the road closed to travel), and (2) reconstruction of the road on its original alignment and grade. The NPS selected the second alternative as its preferred alternative. During a 30-day public review period, the NPS received just four comments; three in favor of the proposed action and one in favor of keeping the road closed.

Regional Director Charles H. Odegaard expressed reservations about the plan, however. First, if the road were reopened it would expose visitors to the potential hazard of future glacial outburst floods. Therefore, the NPS needed to have more information on this phenomenon and a warning system in place so that visitors could make their own risk assessments. Second, Odegaard maintained that the environmental assessment process was inadequate for evaluating the potential for further damage from glacial outburst floods, or "jokulhlaups," as they were now called. "A primary management planning need is to pre evaluate the Mount Rainier road system in relation to future jokulhlaups, river flooding, and seismic damage," Odegaard wrote. A third and related issue was that NPS policy must be brought into compliance with Executive Orders 11988, "Floodplain Management," and 11990, "Protection of Wetlands." The wording in these executive orders suggested that the Westside Road might have to be phased out or relocated. [70]

Acting on these concerns, the Park Service requested that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) make a reconnaissance of a potential road realignment. FHWA engineer Scott Rustay reported on two alternatives in December 1991, one involving a steep 15 percent grade and the other involving a 7 percent grade but not entirely bypassing the Tahoma Creek floodplain. Both alternate routes led through old growth forest. Moreover, both alternatives entailed an adjustment of the boundary of the Mount Rainier Wilderness. [71]

Following FHWA's realignment reconnaissance effort, the NPS prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) for management of the Westside Road and released it for a 30-day public review period in January 1993. The EA put forth five alternative management actions for consideration. These included the two FHWA alternative realignments, permanent closure of the road above Dry Creek (converting the road bed above that point to administratively designated "wilderness"), continuous repair of the existing road, as needed (the "no action" alternative), and temporary closure of the road above Dry Creek to non-administrative vehicular traffic for the forseeable future, leaving it open to foot, stock, bicycle, and administrative use (the preferred alternative). Under the preferred alternative, the NPS would monitor the debris flood activities and consider repairing and reopening the road should the flooding substantially subside. Following public input, the park prepared a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) and implemented the preferred alternative.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2000