Audiocast #2 : NPCA Discusses Storm Damage and Listening Sessions

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Sean Smith, NW Regional Director NPCA

jersu's picture

Last week I had a chance to sit down and have an interview with Sean Smith, the Northwest Regional Director of the National Parks and Conservation Association. Sean was a lot of fun to talk to, I found him to be very knowledgeable about many park issues. I've edited our conversation down to 11 minutes 30 seconds, but there was a lot of the interview I had to leave on the virtual cutting room floor. Perhaps down the road, I'll reassemble the extras and create another audiocast. Today's conversation covers two big topics, the November storms which did many millions of dollars worth of damage to Northwest National Parks, and also covers the ongoing Park Service listening sessions.

If you are thinking about coming to Seattle on March 26th for the NPS Listening Session next week, I'd say you should consider stopping by the NPCA office in Pioneer Square, but the office is closed on Mondays! Oh well. If you live in the area, you could stop by Tues through Saturday, and you'd be able to see the current photo exhibit of the storm damage at our Northwest Parks.

One of the details I had to cut from the interview is that the NPCA has teamed up with the Washington Trails Association, the Student Conservation Association, and the Washington National Park Fund to fix up the storm damage in the parks. They're recruiting volunteers to help on the trails, they're asking congress for more money, and they've set up a blog with more information about the ongoing fix-up efforts. More information about the couple who died at Mt Rainier: Hiking pair who died near Mount Rainier inseparable to the end



Hi, this is Jeremy Sullivan. Our audiocast today is with Sean Smith of the National Parks and Conservation Association. We're talking about park service listening sessions, and winter storm damage. Please, join us.

March 22, 2007


There is an incredibly tragic story coming from Mt Rainier National Park this week. A couple who had been on a weekend camping trip in the northwest section of the park died when they fell into a the very swift current of a swollen creek. They had waited an extra day before trying the creek crossing back to their car, but even then the Ipsut Creek remained just as intense. The bridge over the creek was gone, washed away in winter flooding. The only option was to make the crossing by climbing across fallen trees. As they moved across the log, the woman fell, her husband then quickly removed his pack and jumped in attempting to save her. I just find this story incredibly sad.

A week ago I sat down with the northwest regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, Sean Smith. One of the things we had talked about was the damage from November storms, and the risks now involved with hiking in Rainier. Also in this interview we discuss the ongoing Park Service listening sessions, and we finish with some information about a current photo exhibition at the NPCA NW office.


JERSU: We here in the Northwest all experienced an amazing storm in November, and flooding here in the cities, but the parks really took a big hit, didn't they? Can you tell me a little bit about what the NPCA is doing with these parks and maybe a little bit about what kind of damage they sustained.

SEAN: We can start with that. The damage in many instances was unprecedented. Mt Rainier for example saw 18 inches of rain in 36 hours. Rivers had historic water levels on them. It's just unbelievable. I've seen pictures of just ' The rivers up there at a strong flow level kind of meander through the river channel and in this instance it filled the entire channel. I can't even imagine how much water was coming off that mountain. When that happens, that water's got to go somewhere, and in many instances it was going over roads, it was going through maintenance areas, it wiped out bridges, it took out campgrounds ' entire campgrounds disappeared at Mt Rainier. The Park Service is afraid they've lost every one of their backcountry bridges, things like that. So, the damage to human infrastructure is significant. Again, at Rainier, we're looking at a minimum of $36 Million dollars to make the repairs. For all the northwest National Parks, including Olympic and North Cascades, we're looking at maybe $45 or $50 Million dollars. And that doesn't even include the stuff we'll probably find as the snow melts and then reveals even more damage. So, it's and unprecedented significant experience that we are going to have to deal with. And if the parks are going to remain accessible, an unbelievable amount of work is going to have to be done. To the Park Service credit, they already are doing quite a bit on reestablishing those roads, building bridges, shoring up campgrounds, that type of thing. In light of that though, the Park Service quickly realized they can't do this on their own. This again, is an unprecedented event. They're going to need the help of not only the Park Service, but the Federal Government, Congress is going to have to get involved, and the American public is going to play a role. We're going to need an army of volunteers to help, and there is going to be something for everyone to do. Whether it's writing their congressperson, whether it's taking a Pulaski out there and working on the trails, or writing a check, there is something everyone can do.

JERSU: So one of my favorite trails in all the park system is the Wonderland Trail, which encircles Rainier. Any chance I can hike that this summer?

SEAN: You can hike it. It's probably going to be a very different experience than what you've had in the past. The Park Service is predicting that everyone of the backcountry bridges has been washed out. So any one of the stream crossings, if it's fairly significant, it could be a little hairy. The Park Service has said, if this your summer to do your once in a lifetime Wonderland Trail trip, you might want to consider postponing that. However, if you're someone who is more experienced, has done it before, you can do segments of it. Or, if you want an experience that's going to be unique, you may be out there all by yourself and you feel comfortable making significant stream crossings, they're not going to stop you from doing that. Just know that it's going to be very different than maybe something someone has done in the past.


JERSU: I'm particularly interested in these listening sessions. I think it's a great opportunity for folks around the country to maybe get their voices heard, for really a neat event, and to help spend $300 million a year. And know, as I understand it, $100 million a year goes to operations over ten years, and then $200 million go to special projects. $100 million of which is from the government, $100 in matching funds.

SEAN: The Park Service is looking at identifying a number of these signature projects that these special funds would go to. They are working on developing their list. In essence what the NPCA would like to see, is that these signature projects that they work on are projects that provide a level of excellence to it, for lack of a better term. Maintenance and things like that are important, but we'd like to see these signature projects actually move towards the Centennial Initiative which says, 'what do we want them to look like 100 years from now'? So, while we do need to continue to keep the lights on, and things like that, we are advocating that money actually go toward projects that put us toward a path that is sustainable, and looks like what it should look like 100 years from now. So, big picture projects. In some cases maybe once in a lifetime type projects. We are hoping that the Park Service has got their thinking caps on and their imagination caps on and that they are thinking really big. I think in many cases they are.

JERSU: One of the thing you had touched on in that last answer was the maintenance backlog. We've heard a lot about that over the last 10 years or so, but I think in a lot of the excitement for the Centennial that has been pushed aside to talk about fun things? In the opinion of the NPCA, as far as you know, what are the plans to address the maintenance backlog, because I don't hear that the Centennial Initiative is really geared to help with that, is that correct?

SEAN: It is, and it isn't. I mean, the Centennial Initiative obviously, they want to hear about what people think the parks should look like 100 years from now. And, if they are not properly maintained, there won't be a system to pass over. I would encourage people to go to these sessions and come with the broadest possible thoughts about how the Parks should be managed, and thought about, and maintained. And, obviously the maintenance backlog is a significant issue. Kind of like what you said, it's not really a sexy, but it is something that has penetrated the collective consciousness. I mean, you've got congresspeople quoting numbers that the Park Service is short $800 million dollars a year. We're looking at a maintenance backlog of upwards of ' depending upon who you quote ' $4 to $8 billion dollars. Obviously we are excited that the operations budget, and the Parks overall budget, is going up, but we're going to be working with congress as well to say "and these more traditional day-to-day things need to be addressed as well". The President promised to eliminate this maintenance backlog, so, he's got a little bit more time, but we'd like to see them make significant efforts and progress toward doing that. People come to the parks for a certain experience, kind of like what we did when we were growing up, and if campgrounds aren't open and toilets don't work, and the roads are potholed, that's definitely going to have an impact on people's experience. They may choose to go elsewhere, and at a minimum we need to provide a basic level of service and support, and then the parks will speak for themselves and do the rest.


JERSU: I know Sean that you are preparing a special exhibition here at the northwest office about the storm damage. Can you tell me a little bit about this exhibit?

SEAN: Yeah! With the support of REI, we got the idea that, what role can the NPCA play? What unique part can we do? And one of the things we're very good at is bringing additional attention to issues. We have this unique space here that allows us to display art and photographs, and things like that. So we just decided several months ago to have a show about the storms. We've got several dozen images up about the impact of the storms, but also images of what the parks looked like before the floods - which we'd like to see ultimately moved back to. So, we are hoping to bring additional attention, we are hoping that the public will come out and see the show which we are calling 'National Parks: Under the Weather ' How you can help'. This [clean-up] job is so big that there is not any one particular entity or individual that can fix it, we're going to need the help of everyone. We think it's a really kind-of innovative and catchy way of drawing additional attention to this problem, because things change. You know, as the summer comes along, people are going to be going up on vacation, or they're going to be getting wrapped up in their own lives, and the storms back in November are going to seem very distant, but they're not. The parks are still dealing with the impacts, so we need to continue to remind people 'hey, this is still here, this is still relevant, and oh by the way, a lot of work still needs to be done'. It's opening March 15 and will run through June (2007). Come on down and see us!


Thanks very much to Sean Smith and the NPCA for providing time for this interview.

This has been show number 2