If the U.S. Forest Service wants to hang on to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a congressional advisory panel made it plain Tuesday that the agency will have to provide better funding.
“The take-home message for us is the general sense that the Forest Service ought to continue in the lead, but only with the proviso that funding should be adequate,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver.
Baird, along with Democratic U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, appeared by video teleconference during the final meeting of the Mount St. Helens Citizens Advisory Committee.
Chronic funding shortfalls boiled to a head in 2007, when the Forest Service permanently closed the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center just 14 years after it opened as an $11.5 million state-of-the-art visitor attraction. Cantwell responded by calling for the National Park Service to take over the monument.
Cantwell later backed off that assertion and instead worked with Murray, Baird and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, to form the 14-member advisory committee.
It was the first comprehensive rethinking of the volcano’s place in Southwest Washington’s social, ecological and economic landscape since 1982, when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating the 110,000-acre monument.
A majority of the committee wanted to keep the monument with the Forest Service, believing it will best maintain current recreational access to the area surrounding the volcano.
But the committee made it clear it expected much more consistent funding.
“We’re asking that there be line-item funding for the monument. It has a lot to do with restoring the public faith,” said Paul Pearce, a Skamania County commissioner who co-chaired the panel with Cowlitz County Commissioner Axel Swanson and Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose.
If consistent funding doesn’t materialize soon, he said, the group will press for a National Park Service takeover.
“We will be the first ones that come right back to you in two years and say, ’It’s not working,”’ Pearce said.
Afterward, Swanson said he remains “outraged” by the closure of Coldwater Ridge in November 2007. Even though he supports leaving the monument with the Forest Service for now, Swanson said Mount St. Helens deserves to be treated on par with like-sized national parks. Northern California’s Mount Lassen, for example, functions on an annual budget of about $4.5 million.
By contrast, Mount St. Helens makes do with $500,000 in recreational funding — plus another $1.2 million for roads and facilities.
“I would love to see us get a much higher budget,” monument Manager Tom Mulder said.
Mulder added that the 193-million-acre U.S. Forest Service system does provide other administrative benefits through sheer economy of scale.
Swanson, a Democrat who is seeking re-election this year, said he intends to spend the next four years pressing the Forest Service and the congressional delegation for better results at Mount St. Helens. He said access is restricted by a chronic backlog of trail and road maintenance. Further, the monument lacks overnight accommodations along the primary visitor access on state Highway 504 from Cowlitz County.
Those things have to change, Swanson said.
“The debate’s not over yet,” he said. “We can’t continue to operate that significant of a resource on a shoestring budget.”
Mark Smith, a committee member who owns the EcoPark Resort just west of the monument boundary, submitted a “minority report” with Cowlitz County tourism promoter Mark Plotkin calling for the monument to become Washington’s fourth national park. Smith, whose family operated a lodge along Spirit Lake before the catastrophic eruption of May 18, 1980, said visitation has stagnated under Forest Service stewardship.
Gateway communities would benefit from the higher profile conferred by national park status, he said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who go to that mountain already think it’s a national park,” he said.