In 2002, National Park officials proposed an expansion to Mt. Rainier National Park along the Carbon River entrance. Spurred by increasing concerns over habitat degradation and loss, the fragmentation of open spaces, growing numbers of endangered or threatened species, and overall diminishing ecosystem health, the proposal sought to protect and preserve valuable forest and riparian habitat, particularly in light of projections for population growth.
Along with park expansion, part of the conservation project involved advocating for the extension of the non-motorized bike and walking Foothills Rails-to-Trails path so that it would run from the Puget Sound to Mount Rainier National Park. This extension will provide a low-impact alternative for traveling to the Park and will promote conservation efforts by limiting impact to riparian buffers.
Building consensus for a major land acquisition, however, was not a simple task. A group of dedicated, concerned citizens took the lead in pushing for expansion. Earth Economics, known at the time as APEX, stepped in to facilitate stakeholder collaboration, help organize the vision, and support the proposed expansion. A consortium of conservation groups joined the effort, and stakeholders met monthly to strategize and conduct outreach for the proposed expansion. The group also worked with the National Parks Service, Pierce County Council, and five gateway communities - Wilkeson, Carbonado, Upper Fairfax, Burnett, and South Prairie – to garner support for the expansion by illuminating how it would support economic development.
In November 2002, an 800-acre increase was approved by the House of Representatives. By 2004, Congress had passed legislation that approved the increase and included plans for a new campground, new trail access points, reduced maintenance costs, and measures to mitigate flood impacts. Along with the expansion, a 1,040-acre parcel of the adjacent Fairfax Forest was zoned for preservation status, providing yet another protective buffer zone for the area.
In all, the Carbon River Conservation Project significantly influenced the park expansion and preservation efforts, ultimately leading to the largest Mt. Rainier National Park expansion in 70 years.[i] Although work remains to be done (the Rails-to-Trails efforts are still underway), this groundbreaking collaboration of citizens and supporting groups laid the foundation for further land preservation to promote healthy habitat and ecosystem services throughout the Carbon River Valley watershed.