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‘Volcanic’ Debate over Future of Mount St. Helens

November 24, 2008

Stevenson, WA – Who is better able to take care of the famous Mount St. Helens volcano site-–the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service? A citizen's task force has spent the last year comparing the two options; its final public hearing took place last week.

Whether Mount St. Helens remains a National Monument or becomes a National Park hinges largely on funding. The 110,000-acre site is currently a Forest Service responsibility, but the agency's budget is so tight that some say it has been unable to take proper care of it.

Making Mount St. Helens a National Park would transfer management to the National Park Service, which some say would mean better funding. Sean Smith, northwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, points out that Mount St. Helens attracts scientists and visitors from around the world, and is in need of more management attention.

"They've had to reduce their ranger staff. They've had to transfer one visitor center to the State of Washington; they closed another. Trails aren't always maintained, and roads are in poor condition."

The Forest Service budget has been drained by firefighting costs, Smith notes, and funds for operating the Mount St. Helens site have been cut in half in recent years. He says there's also precedent for the change: Olympic National Park and the Grand Canyon started out as National Monuments.

"It has happened before; there is a track record. It has been shown that this does have huge benefits for the resource as well as the surrounding communities. I'm optimistic it could happen, in the next year or two."

Recent University of Washington research shows that having a National Park nearby significantly increases visitation and boosts tourism dollars for local towns, although testimony to the task force indicates not everyone wants to see the Mount St. Helens site change management hands.

The citizen's task force is expected to make its recommendation in the next few months.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA