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The Volcano's Calm, But The Park Debate Isn't

If you can see Mount St Helens from where you sit today, you’ll no doubt agree it looks placid. A thin vapor plume trickles over the crater rim. If it’s action you’re after, look in the towns around the foot of the volcano. People are lining up to support or oppose making the volcano a full-fledged national park. Correspondent Tom Banse reports from Longview, Washington.

This is about whether the National Park Service would be a better caretaker of Mount St Helens. The US Forest Service currently manages the volcanic monument. It’s going through a budget crunch and plans to close one of the visitor centers.

Sean Smith once worked as a seasonal ranger at another of the crater viewpoints. He’s now organizing support for a change the status of the volcano.

Sean Smith: “Elevating it to a national park is the best way to achieve all of the benefits and goals we have for this region, including bringing more visitors, protecting the resources, and infusing more money into these gateway communities.”

Smith is regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. He says federal spending at Mount St Helens could more than double if it were treated the same as, say, Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.
Mt St Helens
Sean Smith: “If the Park Service were to take over, it would likely expand to about a $4 million budget and an increase of 50 to 70 rangers to work in the backcountry.”

Smith spoke outside a well-attended “summit” meeting to discuss the future of Mount St Helens. But at that Longview, Washington gathering, the timber giant Weyerhaeuser declared its opposition. Forester Dick Ford says the company is worried about restrictions on its St Helens Tree Farm if it has a national park for a neighbor.

Dick Ford: “We do not want to have restrictions on clear-cutting. We do not want to have restrictions on use of fertilizers and those sorts of things, things that we are currently under with just state forest practices rules.”

Property rights activist Chuck Cushman looks forward to snowmobiling around Mount St Helens this winter. The Clark County man mass e-mailed a warning that a national park could “lock out” elk hunters, mushroom pickers, and motorized recreation.

Chuck Cushman: “The Park Service constituencies will immediately push to declare wilderness, cut off access. Any possibility of additional roads or campgrounds or anything like that goes out the window. Whereas with the Forest Service, they’re more open to multiple use, allowing people to recreate there and go there.”

Conservation groups claim the fears are overblown. They cite examples of parks that allow snowmobiles or build new campgrounds.

It should be noted that the Forest Service wants to keep its gem of a volcano. National recreation and heritage director Jim Bedwell flew out here from Washington, DC to defend the agency’s record.

Jim Bedwell: “I am proud of the job the Forest Service has been doing. A national monument and the name Mount St Helens draws people sufficiently. We have responded with a very broad set of recreation opportunities that is somewhat unique among federal agencies.”

Congress has the final say. US Senator Maria Cantwell continues to believe the status quo at Mount St Helens is unacceptable. In a new letter, she says the potential benefits of national park status merit further consideration.

On the other hand, the congressman who represents the immediate area is treading cautiously. Representative Brian Baird is a Democrat from Vancouver, Washington.

Brian Baird: “I’m staying open minded about it. I think there are very, very many questions that are worth exploring. But it would vastly premature at this point to conclude whether a park or a monument is better. It’s not like the Park Service has called anyone and said, ‘Gee, Congressman. We have hundreds of millions of dollars sitting around to run this as a park if you’ll just please give it to us.’ That’s not there.”

Baird’s skepticism matters. He says a change in volcano management requires legislation and his “acquiescence,” neither of which exist today.



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