Paradise Weekday Closure: Updates & the Road Ahead
Mount Rainier National Park has closed the road to Paradise to vehicles from Monday-Friday. The closure will be in effect for the entire winter season.
Park leadership says that the closure is due to staff shortages rather than budgetary constraints. The park has been unable to hire key employees and is operating with a fraction of its normal staff.
We’re working on ways to make sure that Paradise is open next winter. Stay tuned for ways you can get involved.
On November 29th, Mt. Rainier National Park announced on its website that the road to Paradise will be closed Monday-Friday for the entire winter 2022-23 season.
This was an enormous blow to the backcountry skiing and snowshoeing community. Paradise is not only a winter playground for many people in Seattle and Tacoma, but one of the few higher elevation areas in the region that is typically accessible throughout the winter.
While the road will still be open on weekends, losing weekday access means that many people who work weekends won’t be able to use Paradise this winter. It also increases crowding in the area during weekends.
Meeting with Park Leadership
The park service initially didn’t provide much explanation for the new policy, which fueled speculation about the reasons for the closure and whether anything could be done to restore access. At a meeting last week, the park Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent explained the reason for the closure.
The meeting with Mount Rainier National Park’s leadership team was attended by the Cascade Backcountry Alliance, the Mountaineers, the Winter Wildlands Alliance, the American Alpine Club, the Access Fund, the Washington Trails Association, the American Alpine Institute, the Northwest Avalanche Center, and local skiers Lowell Skoog and Jason Hummel.
For our part, we wanted to know how we could partner with or support the park to help restore access to Paradise as soon as possible.
The meeting started with Lowell and Jason giving historical and recreational context to the meeting. They painted a picture of the love the backcountry skiing community has for Paradise and the value of winter access.
Michael DeCramer, representing the Washington Trails Association, discussed how Paradise is also used by families, sledders, and winter campers. As the highest elevation winter road in the state, Paradise offers recreation opportunities for a wide range of users.
The Reasoning Behind the Closure
Park Superintendent Greg Dudgeon explained that the reason behind the weekday closure of Paradise is not a lack of funding. Instead, it’s a lack of staff.
At present, Mount Rainier National Park is operating with a road crew of 5 employees, down from 10 last year and as many as 14 in years past. There were many days last winter when the road didn’t open and many more when the gate opened late in the day. Even with double the number of road maintenance staff that the park has this winter, the park was having difficulty maintaining the road to Paradise.
The park has the funding to hire additional staff, but has been unable to recruit qualified applicants who have the necessary certifications. At the start of the winter season, park leadership decided that they could not safely run operations during the week and chose to focus their limited resources on preserving weekend access.
Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as offering higher wages to employees. As a federal agency, Mount Rainier National Park cannot set its own wages. Job classifications and pay are set in Washington, D.C.
At the same time, the park has faced difficulty finding housing for employees. There is some housing available inside the park for seasonal employees, but many staff members have to find housing in communities outside the park. Rent has increased rapidly in these communities, making it even more difficult to attract employees.
What Can We Do to Restore Access?
One major takeaway from the meeting was that weekday access to Paradise is unlikely to be restored this winter. The staffing issues the park is facing are structural and long-term.
At this point, the park’s priority and our own is to make sure that this closure doesn’t happen again next winter.
There aren’t any easy solutions here. We’re currently exploring two options for how we can support the park going forward.
1. Push for higher wages for jobs in the park.
The root of the park’s staffing problem is that wages for park employees have not kept up with other employment opportunities or the cost of living in the surrounding area.
As federal employees, park staff are not allowed to lobby for higher wages. We’re exploring ways to let our representatives know that staffing at the park is a problem and to advocate for assigning higher wage classifications to roles that are critical for maintaining winter access.
2. Increase the availability of government-subsidized housing in gateway communities.
The federal government has programs that offer subsidized housing for park employees in gateway communities in partnership with local homeowners. Getting the park and homeowners to partner on subsidized housing may be a way to overcome the housing barrier for park employees in the long run.
We’re exploring ways that CBA can initiate conversations between the park and local homeowners. We don’t yet know whether these subsidized housing programs would apply to the gateway communities around Mount Rainier or whether subsidized housing is enough to resolve staffing issues. This is likely a long-term project that will take several years to bear fruit.
We know many people in the backcountry community would like to be involved with helping to restore access to Paradise. As soon as we have ways for people to get involved with these efforts, we’ll reach out to the community for help.
For now, here are a few things you can do:
Spread the word about open jobs. The park typically lists open positions in the fall and spring. Current job openings are available here.
Volunteer. Volunteering isn’t going to restore access to Paradise, but it can help ease some of the pressure on the park’s staff. It’s also a great way to contribute to the community and some of the volunteering opportunities can be really fun. You can find current volunteering opportunities here.
Stick together. We know many in the backcountry community are frustrated with the decision to gate the road to Paradise. Please remember that the best way to restore access is to work collaboratively with the park’s leadership and other user groups. If you use Paradise on the weekends, thank the park employees you see for being there.
Our goal is to restore weekday access to Paradise as soon as possible and keep it open for the long-term. We want the community to be involved, so stay tuned for ways you can help.