Federal shutdown cuts access to North Cascades, threatens Mountain School plans



A ranger leads a group of Bellingham students from the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center during a Mountain School session on March 22, 2010. The popular North Cascades Institute program is on hold this month after the federal shutdown closed the park.


Hikers itching to get out for fall colors this weekend will want to do some checking first to make sure they aren't disappointed by gates at their destination as the federal government shutdown continues.

In Whatcom County, impacts to recreation include the cancellation of a kayak slalom race this weekend on the Nooksack River in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

And parents of 150 Bellingham elementary school students have been notified that their children will be unable to attend Mountain School in North Cascades National Park next week if Congress doesn't resolve the issue in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the Washington Trails Association is fielding questions from hikers about where they can, and can't, go.

One answer: Stick with state, county and city parks. They're not affected by the shutdown.

"It's an opportunity to shed some light on things that are maybe close to home and really beautiful too," said Susan Elderkin, communications and outreach director for WTA.

The other answer can be a little befuddling.

"The national parks are definitely closed. No one should go hiking in a national park or a recreation area. But trails in the national forest are not closed," Elderkin said.


The complex is among 401 national parks closed by the National Park Service.

About 150 fourth- and fifth-graders at Wade King and Columbia Elementary schools hoping to go to the two-day Mountain School hope the closure won't drag into next week.

"Nothing is official yet," said Jeff Giesen, associate director for the nonprofit North Cascades Institute. "We're going to wait until Sunday. We're crossing our fingers that the shutdown is fixed."

Mountain School is a popular environmental education program offered by North Cascades Institute in cooperation with North Cascades National Park. Students learn about ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains.

Wade King students are set to go the first part of the week, and Columbia students the second part.

If the shutdown drags on into mid-October, students at Northern Heights and Happy Valley elementaries will be unable to attend.

North Cascades Institute also has had to cancel its adult programs at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in the park. It is losing thousands of dollars, representatives said, but the impact on kids who look forward to going to Mountain School but might not be able to do is of concern.

"That's the one that hurts the most," Giesen said.

The shutdown has led to the closure of all campgrounds, trails and roads in the park. The exception is North Cascades Highway (Highway 20), which remains open.

The closure is in effect for North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. The visitor center in Newhalem and the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount are closed as well as park headquarters in Sedro-Woolley.

In Ross Lake National Recreation Area, the Ross Lake Resort and water taxi service have shut down; Hozomeen campground and North Cascades Environmental Learning Center are also closed. In Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, visitor facilities including the Golden West Visitor Center and the lodge, restaurant and store at Stehekin have been shuttered.

Closure signs have been posted on facilities and at trailheads, but park rangers will be on patrol for public safety and to protect park resources.

A total of 120 employees have been furloughed and about 40 concessions employees also have been affected.


National forest trails remain open although hikers might find gates blocking access, according to the Washington Trails Association. But campgrounds run by the U.S. Forest Service and other facilities - such as the Glacier Public Service Center off Mount Baker Highway and bathrooms - are closed.

Some campgrounds operated by concessionaires will stay open. However, the reservation system at recreation.gov is offline.

Unlike those for national parks, the website for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest remains online. But updates on trail and road conditions aren't being posted.

The federal shutdown forced the cancellation of a kayak race called the Nooksack Slalom on Saturday, Oct. 5, and Sunday, Oct. 6, in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie because the special use permit for the event had to be rescinded.

Race organizers, the League of Northwest Whitewater Racers, also had reserved the entire Douglas Fir Campground, which is in the forest and is closed.


Still wondering what to do or where to go? Check these other resources:

• The Washington Trails Association has a blog on how the shutdown is affecting hikers, campers and volunteers on its website at wta.org. Also on the website is a write-up of alternate fall hikes on state, city and county lands.

• Go online to nwhikers.net and click on "Trail Talk" and "Trip Reports." You can post questions there for other hikers.

• Before you head into the mountains, check the weather by going to weather.gov. The National Weather Service continues to provide forecasts during the shutdown.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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