An Administrative History of Mount Rainier National Park
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The central purpose of Mount Rainier National Park is to preserve the area in a natural condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. This public intent was incipient in the establishment of the Pacific Forest Reserve in 1893, and definitely spelled out in the Mount Rainier National Park act of 1899. Mount Rainier National Park has been shaped by more than a century of federal management and intensive public use in fulfillment of that purpose.

It is often remarked that the National Park Service mission contains an irreconcilable tension between preservation and use. Preserving nature and providing for the public's enjoyment of nature represent a pair of directives that can never be absolutely compatible with one another. This classic tension has animated management decisions in Mount Rainier National Park since the park's founding. Park managers, negotiating that conflict over and over again in whatever specific context it arose, looked for guidance to the current, dominant philosophical assumptions about what a national park should be. These culturally-based assumptions have changed markedly over the past 100 years.

What becomes clear from a study of the administrative history of Mount Rainier National Park is how multi-faceted the tension between preservation and use has been in this park. The philosophical assumptions that have guided park management have encompassed much more than changing cultural constructions of nature. They have included such diverse considerations as appropriate and inappropriate recreational uses in a national park, the proper role of private capital in a national park, the sanctity of national park resources in the context of economic mobilization for total war, and the value of national park visitation to the state or regional tourism economy.

Indeed, until fairly recently the fiercest disagreements over proper administration of Mount Rainier National Park took into account the park's natural resources only tangentially. Concession policy, road development, public works in the Depression era, winter use--these were the issues that attracted the most public discourse. It is only in recent decades that the most controversial issues of park management began to revolve around natural resources.

The national park idea is at once ennobling and imbued with a disquieting sense of loss. Our urge to preserve pieces of wild nature springs directly from our national experience of westward expansion. Anxious about the loss of the frontier at the close of the nineteenth century, Americans fashioned a new view of wild nature, remaking North American wilderness into an indispensable and dwindling commodity. National parks were one answer to a vanishing frontier. They were monuments to our wilderness heritage. National parks became our relics, our ancient ruins. They were intrinsically nostalgic places.

Today, as the twentieth century draws to a close, we face a recurrence of this cultural anxiety in the prospect of our national parks becoming so inundated with people that the national park experience is changed beyond recognition. Reflecting that concern for the national park system as a whole, the dominant management issue in Mount Rainier National Park in the foreseeable future will be how to contend with upwards of two million visitors annually while preserving the ''national park experience. "

The pattern of visitor use in Mount Rainier National Park has changed in remarkable ways over the past 100 years. Visitor numbers have grown from an estimated 2,000 in 1899 to more than 2 million per year in the 1990s, an increase of a thousand-fold. Automobile use has increased by an even greater percentage. Moreover, private vehicles have grown larger in size; probably more people visit the park in gargantuan recreational vehicles today than ever came by bus or train in years past. Meanwhile, average visitor stays have grown shorter and shorter. Various visitor activities have fallen in and out of favor, from golf to mineral baths to downhill skiing. Obviously the "national park experience" is a malleable and evolutionary concept.

In one important respect, the pattern of visitor use seems to be coming full circle in Mount Rainier National Park. Visitor use began as a predominantly local phenomenon, and it appears to be headed back in that direction.

The critical test for park managers in the coming years will be found in their ability to define preservation for the public. As park managers search for that elusive balance between preservation and use, they will need to articulate again and again what the public wants its national parks to be. Superintendents of Mount Rainier National Park will need to direct that message to the visitor to an ever increasing degree.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2000