Monday, August 28, 2006

Report: Public Meeting on Olympic National Park Draft GMP/EIS

Report on the Public Meeting on Olympic National Park, Seattle, Aug 24th 5-9pm at the downtown REI. As we signed in the door we were handed a 400-500 page soft-bound copy of the plan.

First item of note: The Public Comment Period has been extended till the 30th of September.

Ryan and myself attended this meeting, expecting a public briefing followed by a chance to posit some questions of the parks officials. That never happened. Instead, exhibits were set about the room and the public engaged in one-on-one explanations of facets of the plan and the proposed alternatives. The number of parks officials was numerous for a meeting this size. They almost outnumbered the public attending.

Ryan waylaid the Park Superintendent alone near the center of the meeting room. When asked (by Ryan) about the format for the meeting, the Park Superintendent excused the approach as more efficient . . . when pressed as to why he wouldn't take questions before a group, he became remarkably defensive stating, that wasn't 'going to happen'. My take on all this (and Ryan's too, I believe), was that decisions have already been made and these public meetings were proforma to satisfy the legal process. They would answer questions one-on-one but would not let themselves get trapped into having to answer questions before a group. No one person (in the person of the Park Superintendent particularly) was going to be accountable for anything said at that meeting. The parks officials kept the public engaged in separate conversations. It was very well done and obvious in the purposefully spacing and positioning of the officials and exhibits.

Nevertheless, Ryan and I engaged the Superintendent on the status of Olympic Hot Springs and you could tell that we touched a raw nerve. It is no secret that the Park has been attempting to de-emphasize the hot springs for a long time. On the official Olympic Parks brochure (that was also handed out before the meeting), Olympic Hot Springs does not even show up on the map.

Another interesting fact is that in the PDF version of this plan on the parks web site, there is no mention of Olympic Hot Springs at all until you get to the charts explaining the alternatives. Since the charts are graphics, a text search does not show those references either. But in the paper-copy handed out, Olympic Hot Springs is mentioned a couple of dozen times . . . three references on soil, hydrological and vegetative impacts for each alternative plus a few other references in passing.

These references in the paper copy conclude that removal of the user-built pools at Olympic Hot Springs will result in "long-term minor to moderate" improvement of the environment. With these conclusions in mind, we engaged the Superintendent. No explanation was forthcoming other than a reference to contamination of the Boulder Creek waters because of the pools and usage. He became very reticent to engage much deeper, though since we had claimed him to ourselves, the superintendent didn't have any good excuse to escape (we had him hemmed up against a table.) No one else was pressing him for a chance to ask a question . . . so Ryan continued to press for answers to 'whys'. I played 'good cop' and listened and sympathized. Ryan was pushing the envelope of comfort. The superintendent seemingly didn't want to answer any questions on Olympic Hot Springs.

And I think it understandable. The Park has not advertised the springs for some time . . . perhaps in a hope that the problems associated with them would go away. To be realistic, there are serious problems up there . . . from unabated pool construction to very unsanitary conditions (carpets in pools). There is unsubstantiated rumor of King County Health being contacted for advice (where the federal Public Health stands on the issue is unknown). Those same problems affect Baker Hot Springs with the USDA FS Rangers attempting several times to shut down the site because of e.coli outbreaks. I accept that the Parks Service would like the problem to go away. So, we need to offer other alternatives.

I posited that it really doesn't matter what the Parks Service does . . . the pools will get rebuilt. That is the nature of hot springers. Destroy them and they'll magically pop up again . . . especially in the middle of the night with an expanded camp ground nearby. The super nodded subtly to that. Yes, he understands the problem. Ryan expanded on the lure and draw of natural hot springs . . . pointing out that of the 30 or 40 cars parked at the trailhead on any particular weekend day, probably only two were backpacking that trail on through . . . the rest were headed up to the springs and that qualifies the springs as an attraction to the park users. I attempted to provide a couple of solutions and between Ryan and myself, I think we actually sparked some interest in the otherwise very tight-lipped superintendent.

First an acknowledgment that the State of Washington has too few hot springs and that our neighbouring states (and provinces) protect and conserve their's for the public enjoyment. Two, I mentioned specifically; Bagby Hot Springs near Estacada and Terwilliger Hot Springs near Springfield . . . both in Oregon. I related the past problems both these places had with sanitation, crime and disruption to the surroundings and how the situation has come under control . . . with the NW Forest Conservatory efforts under USFS auspices at Bagby; and with a management contract with HooDoo Recreational Services at Cougar (Terwilliger).

The HooDoo services sparked interest in the superintendent. He started asking questions about how it worked and how effective it was. Ryan went into a long discussion of the conditions at Terwilliger and how under-control the situation was down there. We provided the superintendent with references and resources to look at how Terwilliger got 'saved'.

All that being said . . . this meeting was not for the public to change the minds of the Park Service . . . it was to present alternatives and elicit comments of our (the public's) preferences. The Park Superintendent really didn't know of the approach that was taken at Cougar so at least we've seeded that idea. Now we need to push for arguments to keep the hot springs there.

One thing the superintendent did emphasize is that the alternatives are not set in stone. He likens them to menus (Chinese menus if I may) that we can choose one from alternative D and two from alternative B, or whatever. He points out that we need to tell them why we like a particular outcome and provide ways of reaching that outcome. This is where the public commenting comes in. Simply saying we don't want the pools from Olympic Hot Springs to be torn down is insufficient. We've got to give them reasons why and how it serves the public interest. In other words, we've got to justify the springs in a positive light.

The GMP/EIS Plan has been in work for years and will likely be several more years before final approval. Then comes the funding, which for Alternative D, the preferred approach, is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of that goes for road/trail improvements, visitor centers and acquisition of land to add to the park. The hot springs are just a small part of that in the park's eyes . . . but an important one for us (and hopefully the public).

On a related issue, Sol Duc (the developed hot springs west of the Elwa valley) is preserved except in the most resource-protective alternative (B). In the preferred alternative (D), Sol Duc would actually enjoy expansion and year-round access.

Subsequent to this report, I was asked for a general framework of ideas for people to comment on the NPS website. Here are a few subjective areas you might want to consider:

  • Historically (which the Parks Service is mandated to preserve). There was a resort there once and to totally revert this back to natural breaks any connection with that important and early history of Washington State;
  • Popularity, Desire and Easy Access. There is no doubt of these facets that bring so many people up to Olympic to enjoy the hot springs. Even for the uninitiated, natural hot springs magically fascinate and draw people to enter the park (and pay the Park entrance fees) for just that reason. It is a draw that even low-income citizens can enjoy;
  • Fiscally. If a management-style approach is established to control the undesirable aspects of the present situation, less Ranger presence would be needed. There is potential for excess revenue to fund other park resources. Quite frankly, just seeing the interest in the Superintendent's voice and his attention when we talked about HooDoo and a management approach strikes me as something that should be pushed;
  • Culturally. The management plan speaks often (and very positively) of the adjoining Indian Reservations and the cultural significance these tribes exert over the decisions made in the plan. Hot springs hold high cultural importance to Native Americans . . . there is a long tradition to soaking in natural hot springs. Most non-Native Americans are touched spiritually and philosophically by an experience a Native American understands intrinsically. We should protect, preserve and honor this very important cultural tradition.
Important: The Public Comment Period for the Draft GMP/EIS Plan ends on September 30th, 2006. Please send them your comments and ideas on why and how they should keep Olympic Hot Springs as a natural soaking opportunity for the public. The NPS website comments page is here.

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