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How running Mt. Rainier Park during closure is like managing ‘a small city’

Employees of all industries are adapting to a more remote work setup as the stay-at-home orders continue on in the coronavirus pandemic, including the employees of Mount Rainier National Park.

The park is not allowing visitors at this time, but employees are still on duty. Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Rainier National Park, joined KIRO Nights to talk about what the rangers and employees are doing while the park is closed, and how you can stay connected to the park from home.

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“Employees are on duty to serve the public and do important stewardship work,” Jenkins said. “Some employees are required to be on duty on the ground in the park, and then the majority of folks are actually working remotely.”

As the last word in the National Park Service implies, the principal thing the parks provide is “service.”

“We are working to be a service to the communities, … right now that means supporting the community health responsibilities,” he said.

The park may be quiet, but there’s still a fair amount of work being done.

“Mt. Rainier National Park is kind of like a small city,” Jenkins said. “We have employees that need to be on duty to keep the power on. We have sewer treatment systems and water systems that have to operate. … We have our law enforcement rangers on duty to protect public property.”

There is still road work, snow removal, and ongoing rehab and maintenance of historic structures.

And online, there’s a whole set of resources available for the public, students, teachers, and parents, to connect to the parks and the rangers.

“What we’re trying to do is continue to provide public information,” he said. “We’re trying to do what we can to help connect kids, and parents, and teachers to the park as well as people just seeking inspiration.”

Mt. Rainier National Park has been using Skype in the Classroom, where teachers and educators can connect directly with park rangers. They also have social media accounts with different resources, images, videos, and activities for kids.

In terms of when the park can reopen for in-person visitors, there is no set date.

“The Department of Interior, which is the agency that the National Park Service is in, is working on a national plan for reopening public lands from within the Department of Interior,” he said. “Our team at Rainier has been doing a variety of different scenario planning. … First and foremost, community, employee, and public safety is our is our highest priority and will be our priority going forward.”

As is the case statewide, it will be a phased approach to reopening, not a flip of the switch.

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“We know that 2020 is not going to be a normal year,” he said. “We know as we roll forward through the rest of spring and into summer … because of the situation that we’ve had to face now, and we don’t know what the health guidance will be like then, it’s not gonna be a normal year.”

While many think that national parks like Mt. Rainier are wide open spaces and should be easy to reopen, there also are a number of places in the park that are busy and crowded.

“Anybody who has been to Mt. Rainier on a weekend knows when you arrive at the park, when you when you come to Longmire, or Paradise, or Sunrise, there are a lot of other people around. When you get to the primary parking lots, there is often crowds of folks.”

Additionally, there are challenges around the public restrooms, both in terms of crowding and in the ability for employees to be able to safely clean the space.

Jenkins said two other factors to be considered in the reopening of the park include employee housing and revenue, much of which is being lost without entrance fees and concessions.

In a given year, the park rents out 235 beds to summer seasonal employees, but will have to reduce that number to allow for better spacing.

“So that means we’re gonna have much fewer employees. And we’re we’re literally going through right now in terms of sorting out, is it folks who help us deal with the custodial or people who are doing trail crew, and people who are providing kind of that basic public information,” he said.

“We’re gonna have to be planning for reducing our operations based upon less revenue, just like a business does,” he added.

On the plus side, this time is providing the parks a chance to see where they can improve the services they provide and find out what they’re doing well.

“We believe that national parks are a great place where people can learn about geology, can learn about history, can learn about our natural and cultural heritage because it’s the real deal, right?” he said. “I think we’re really recognizing both what we have done that’s maybe working well, but [also] how we need to be better in the future of providing those learning opportunities virtually.”

Jenkins hopes to see everyone at the parks again in person soon, though not all at once.

“Mount Rainier continues to be here for all of you,” he said. “We hope you’ll come visit.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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