VANCOUVER — Officials from Southwest Washington lauded U.S. Forest Service management of Mount St. Helens during a Monday meeting, but backers of making the volcano a national park say they’re still not convinced. And it’s still unclear when U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler will decide whether to support a National Park Service feasibility study.
Monday’s meeting at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest headquarters included a long list of recent improvements Forest Service officials have made to the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Those include a “face lift” at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, reopening the Coldwater Lake Visitor Center as a science center and improving trails and signs throughout the monument.
Commissioners from Cowlitz, Lewis and Skamania counties praised their working relationship with the Forest Service. They said they were impressed at the number of Mount St. Helens Congressional Advisory Committee recommendations the agency has been able to meet, especially given these tough economic times.
The congressional committee met for 18 months. The final report was written in 2009 and recommended staying with the Forest Service as long as several goals could be met. Forest Service employees said they haven’t reached every goal, but they’ve made good progress.
“I’m astounded at how much progress has been made,” said Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce, one of three co-chairs for the committee. Pearce was one several officials from the region the Forest Service invited to comment on its management.
As for the national park question, Pearce said “I hope we can put that discussion away for awhile while we really concentrate on the positive things that are happening.”
National Park supporters, though, said the issue isn’t over and that Monday’s Forest Service-managed meeting shouldn’t be taken as the final word. They say the area would receive more tourists and federal funding as a national park.
“The Forest Service does an outstanding job within their ability and funding, but it’s still nowhere close to making Mount St. Helens the economic engine it could be,” Mark Smith, owner of the Eco Park Resort near the mountain, said after the meeting. “Until the Forest Service puts $4 million to $5 million here a year, it will always be underfunded compared to what the Park Service could do.”
He added that having the Park Service manage the area as monument and not a full-fledged national park would eliminate some of the access and air quality restrictions that have been mentioned by Forest Service supporters.
Both sides are now waiting for Herrera Beutler to decide whether to push for a $300,000 to $500,000 national park feasibility study considered key to moving the national park debate forward.
Monday, Herrera Beutler said she had no date for when she would decide, saying she wants to review the Forest Service information first.
“It seems like people feel progress has been made, but the question is ‘Is it enough progress?’” said Herrera Buetler, a Republican who represents Southwest Washington. “You don’t want this dragged on forever, but I want to be through and circumspect.”
Smith said if the area is not made a national park in the next year supporters will lose momentum and the idea will die.