As Seattle-Tacoma Airport Approaches Capacity, State Continues to Search for Sites for a  New Airport

What Would a Large Airport in the Shadow of Mount Rainier Mean for the Park and Its Visitors?


Sherwin Ferguson likes national parks. 

The 63-year-old saw a herd of 300 bison on a recent trip to Yellowstone and a moose on a river bank at Grand Teton. And Ferguson’s property outside Eatonville, Mountain Lodge Farm, looks at Mount Rainier. 

They have goats and sheep, and they name the cheeses they sell at their dairy after places in the national park. The clean air, trees, animals, and the peace and quiet are part of the draw, she said.

Ferguson is worried how plans for a new major airport in Western Washington could impact that. 

“Certainly jet fuel and sound and pollution and all of that is absolutely going to affect a national park,” she said. 

As Seattle-Tacoma International Airport approaches capacity, the state is looking at sites for a new airport in Western Washington to handle the growing population. Two of the three greenfield sites on the short list are close to the park.

A spokesperson for Mount Rainier National Park declined The News Tribune’s request for an interview with someone from the park about what impact a new commercial airport in the shadow of Mount Rainier might have on the park and its visitors in the decades to come. 

But a letter Mount Rainier National Park superintendent Greg Dudgeon sent to the commission charged with recommending a location for the new airport outlined concerns the National Park Service has with the plan. 

“Increased aviation near the park may adversely impact wilderness values, viewsheds, scenic values, air quality, park soundscapes and the opportunity for visitors to experience natural sounds and solitude in an unimpaired condition,” Dudgeon wrote. “Noise and air pollution may occur at considerable distances from an airport, impacting park values and resources. Airport lighting and other aspects of airport operations may be visible at park viewpoints, impacting viewsheds and night sky resources.”

He sent the letter, dated Dec. 15, to the chair of the state Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, Warren Hendrickson. 

Asked if the commission has had discussions with park leaders, Hendrickson mentioned the letter and shared a copy with The News Tribune. 

The News Tribune also has pending records requests for any communication between the commission, its staff and the park.

“Airport development, related public infrastructure, and traffic may impact park visitation and travel patterns from the highly populated Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia corridor via SR-7 or SR-161,” the superintendent’s letter said. “We are also concerned about impacts to wildlife, threatened and endangered species and their habitats, water resources, and wilderness values in our connected watersheds and landscapes.” 

The commission has narrowed potential greenfield sites down to three: one south of Graham, one east of Roy, and another near Olympia. The commission is supposed to make a final recommendation to the Legislature by mid-June. State lawmakers will make a final decision, though some have said in recent weeks that they might ask the commission to restart the search process.

Dudgeon’s letter noted that the park is 17 miles and 23 miles from the proposed Pierce County sites, and 40 miles from the one in Thurston County. 

“It is unclear whether these issues have been considered before determining the sites to evaluate further for airport development,” Dudgeon wrote. “We request that you conduct robust environmental reviews that include evaluating and mitigating the specific concerns outlined here, and that the National Park Service be included as a stakeholder during these reviews.”

Ferguson worries that the development necessary for a new airport would turn the area into another SeaTac. 

“It’s going to become ugly urban sprawl,” she said. “They are basically thinking of desecrating the highway, this scenic highway to Mount Rainier. That is essentially where they’re looking.” 

It’s not clear what a new airport would mean for traffic to the park.

“Just because they build an airport closer to the park doesn’t mean the park would be able to accommodate what might come its way,” she said. 

Jeremy Foust, 45, has had a goat farm for 13 years, Left Foot Farm, that offers Airbnb rentals near Eatonville. Visitors stay, enjoy the goats and play in the national park. 

He said he thinks people visit the area to get away from an urban setting. 

With planes overhead and the freeway noise he expects would come with an airport, he said: “Who the heck wants to experience that? They’re going to go somewhere else.”

It’s already tough to run a business in the gateway communities near the Nisqually entrance to the park, he said, in places such as Elbe, Ashford and Eatonville. 

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “Just historically there hasn’t been a lot of year-round business.” 

Asked if he thinks having an airport closer to the park would mean more visitors, he said he’s not convinced. SeaTac isn’t that far from the park, he argued, and he said he could see the infrastructure that comes with an airport making the drive to the park more difficult.

“I don’t think building in a green space near the national park is the best way forward,” he said. 

“The park would have to reevaluate its budget and its thought process for how they’re going to deal with visitors, lack of or more so, either one, if an airport is nearby, this close.”

He said he expects those conversations are happening. The park and the federal government move at “a very slow pace,” he said, but “the park plans for everything.” 

Foust acknowledged that the commission has a tough job to do in finding a site for a major airport.

“We have to plan ahead, I get that,” he said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”