If it were a beauty pageant, surely Mount Rainier National Park, with its glacier-topped volcanic cone, wildflower-spotted alpine meadows and towering hemlocks, would win.
But it’s popularity that counts: This summer, Mount Rainier National Park will compete against 19 other national parks for grant funding, in an “American Idol”-like battle for votes put on by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and promoted by National Geographic.
Some $2 million is up for grabs. Representatives of the 20 parks invited to participate each pitched projects that would cost up to $250,000.
Government funding for national parks has been lagging, even as more people visit, and donations don’t fill the gap. That left the National Park Service with an estimated $11.5 billion maintenance backlog in 2014, according to a Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year.
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So this is what it’s come to — vying for internet votes to earn a slice of the private-funding pie.
Mount Rainier’s proposal: rehabilitating a cabin in the Longmire Historic District that was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The park plans to use the cabin as a bunkhouse for search-and-rescue volunteers who help park rangers find missing hikers, climbers and skiers, said park Superintendent Randy King.
“It’s fallen into such disrepair that we’re no longer able to occupy and use it,” King said of the house, a two-bedroom with a kitchen and bathroom. “Either we intervene and do significant work or we’re going to lose it.”
King said the park counted 50 search-and-rescue operations last year, and 100 more medical emergencies that required response. During summer months, there’s not enough space to house the rescue volunteers, who are called in during all hours for help.
As of May 31, the project was in the middle of the pack, lagging behind proposals from Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon — but it was beating Mount Rushmore and Zion National Park.
Mount Rainier is asking for $218,000 for the cabin. That’s a drop in the bucket for the park overall: It has a nearly $300 million maintenance backlog.
Park crews will do the construction work.
“It’s going to require a new foundation, a new roof and essentially … we’re going to have to take it down to the studs and rebuild it,” King said.
Mount Rainier National Park is not wrangling votes itself.
King said it would be “unseemly” for individual national parks to publicly compete for funding. “They’re all good (projects). They’re all special places,” King said.
That leaves the pitch work to Washington’s National Park Fund, a nonprofit that raises donation money to bolster Washington’s three national parks: Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades.
“It’s preservation with a purpose. It’s not just preserving a historic building, which is great; it’s benefiting a massive amount of volunteers,” said Laurie Ward, the organization’s executive director.
Ward said her organization received an initial grant of $10,000 for participating in the contest and is putting all that money toward a social media campaign to win votes.
She said she wasn’t uncomfortable with being pitted against other parks.
“I won’t bite the hand that feeds me, and this is a common social media approach in campaigns today,” she said, referring to the popular-vote setup. “I put my blinders on and I set out to simply focus on us. I’m absolutely, hands-down going to be obsessed with this for five weeks.”
Park funding has not kept pace with inflation, according to the GAO report. Congressional appropriations, which are 88 percent of the park system’s budget, fell 8 percent from 2005 to 2014, when adjusted for inflation.
In 2014, the Park Service estimated it had a maintenance backlog of about $11.5 billion, according to the report.
King said Mount Rainier National Park has about $1.3 billion of infrastructure in the park, including roads, utilities, trails and structures.
“The maintenance backlog is one indicator we’ve not put enough money into maintaining our parks,” King said. He said the park increasingly relies on volunteers, donations and entrance fees, which increased last year.
The maintenance backlog comes as more people visit the national park system, which turns 100 this year. Visits to national park sites, including monuments and other attractions, rose to more than 307 million last year, an increase of 14 million people from 2014 and 34 million more people when compared with 2005.
“We’re anticipating a lot of visitors this year because of the national park centennial,” King said.
#VOTEYOURPARK: THE PARTNERS IN PRESERVATION CAMPAIGN
The public can vote once a day for up to five proposals at voteyourpark.org.
Voting closes July 5.