Mount St. Helens panel to recommend High Lakes land swap, Forest Service management
Mount St. Helens panel to recommend High Lakes land swap, Forest Service management

Mount St. Helens should not be a national park but it does need more money, access and accommodations, an advisory committee decided Thursday. Public access to the nearby High Lakes area also should be ensured, committee members agreed.

It’s unclear how many of the goals will be realized — and there are some dissenting opinions attached to the report. But Congressional Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee members said they are pleased with their 15-month effort.

Many of the proposals are expensive. Committee members acknowledged that but said their task was to envision the future of the area, not how to pay for each item.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Axel Swanson said he believes the discussion has energized the Forest Service, which manages the volcano area, and will lead to administrative changes that require no money.

The report will be presented to the area’s federal lawmakers in August. The committee was created to tap local suggestions about the future of the volcano and the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Members hashed out proposed recommendations in February and made mostly minor adjustments Thursday.

Efforts to make the volcano a national park once again failed to gain support.

Committee members Mark Smith and Mark Plotkin argued against the recommendation for continued Forest Service management. Smith said the committee hadn’t done a through enough analysis of what a national park would entail. He said the decision should be left to Congress.

“I have a really hard time supporting this remaining in the Forest Service based on the lack of performance for the past 28 years,” Mark Smith said. He owns the Eco Park Resort near the volcano.

Plotkin, director of the Cowlitz County Tourism Bureau, argued a National Park would increase tourism and that most of committee’s other recommendations are things the Park Service already does.

The Gifford Pinchot Task Force environmental group solicited hundreds of postcards supporting National Park status and the National Parks Conservation Association advocacy group also coordinated at least 600 pro-park e-mails to committee members.

At the public hearings in Kelso and Camas, though, there was strong support for continued Forest Service management as long as federal funding is increased.

Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce — one of three committee co-chairs — said he gave more weight to the people who turned out to the meetings or wrote their own letters.

“If there was this overwhelming push locally, from Portland to Seattle, to make it a park then what happened?” Pearce asked. “They didn’t show up (at the meetings).”

Mark Smith argued that local comment was important, but the area is a national concern as well.

“The monument is everybody’s monument,” he said. “It’s funded and paid for out of tax dollars and every tax payer should have a say.” He plans to submit a dissenting opinion on the issue.

Sean Smith, an official with the of the parks group that pushed for the change, said he doesn’t think the national park discussion is over and still believes it’s the best answer for the area.

“This isn’t an end, it’s a start,” he said. “The public, the Forest Service and Congress are going to continue to watch this.”

The one area added to the recommendations was protecting public access to the High Lakes area on the Cowlitz-Skamania county line. The privately owned land is for sale. Strong public comment at the two hearings convinced members to add it into the recommendations.

Committee members said they favor a land swap by the Forest Service to obtain the land. It’s also possible a private trust could purchase the lands, but committee members want the Forest Service specifically directed to work on the goal.

The committee also recommended creating several task forces or committees to address marketing, scientific research and to create more recreation within areas currently restricted to research.

All of the recommendations, including rankings by priority within subcategories and pros and cons, will be posted on the committee’s Web page: http://www.skamaniacounty.org/SHAC.htm

Recommendations

These are some of the major recommendations or themes for Mount St. Helens by the congressional advisory committee:

Management

Have the U.S. Forest Service create a stand-alone administrative entity that includes the volcanic monument and some adjacent forest land; give the area increased and dedicated funding and have the manager report directly to the regional forester.

Roads/Access

Extend State Route 504 to U.S. Highway 12; create a State Route 503 loop from Cougar to Carson; upgrade Forest Service Road 25. Roads would not be plowed in winter.

Recreation/Tourism

Increase recreational activities in areas currently restricted to science — such as Spirit Lake; convert the shuttered Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center into an overnight venue and develop destination resorts in or near the monument.

High Lakes

The Forest Service should acquire the High Lakes region through land swaps of other Gifford Pinchot National Forest lands to ensure the area remains open to the public.

Conservation

No new roads in the monument (the roads proposed are outside the monument boundary but within the new administrative unit the committee wants created).

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