May 18 Daily News editorial
May 18 has a special scary significance for anyone who lived here 32 years ago. On that day in 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted, bringing death, devastation — and worldwide fame.
Today, we honor the memory of those who perished and marvel at how quickly the 230 square miles of blast zone around the peak have recovered. We're also pleased that a debate continues on which agency can best manage the volcano and best capitalize on that fame.
Three decades ago, many people in this area viewed Mount St. Helens as a tourism gold mine. Those expectations proved overly optimistic, as evidenced by the closure of the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center in 2007.
This year is another milestone: the 30th anniversary of legislation putting Mount St. Helens management under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.
In the first couple of decades of Forest Service management of the volcano, the agency didn't get much opposition. Indeed, there seemed to be a steady source of federal dollars for visitor centers, trails and naturalists. But visitation has slumped from around 1 million a few years ago to a quarter of that. That's one reason behind a proposal to transfer the volcano to the National Park Service.
Three years ago, the Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee recommended that the Forest Service continue its management, with several provisions. We'll note that most of those suggestions haven't been carried out:
• The committee called for the Forest Service to provide more volcano funding. The agency did get a backhanded boost from the economic crash — $4.5 million in federal stimulus money for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. That paid for new windows at the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, a new amphitheater at Johnston Ridge, trail work and other improvements. But the controversial stimulus funding isn't likely to be available again. What's needed is a permanent source.
• The committee wanted to reopen Coldwater as an overnight lodging. Instead, it opens today as a research center that's still off-limits to the general public.
• The committee favored a new highway linking Spirit Lake Memorial Highway with Highway 12. Plans for such an expensive route (estimated at $140 million four years ago) haven't gone anywhere.
Despite what might appears to be less-than-spectacular progress, the Forest Service retains the support of Lewis and Skamania county commissioners. This week, Cowlitz County commissioners declined to join those neighboring counties in calling for continued Forest Service management of the volcano, even though the Cowlitz County leaders praised the recent work the Forest Service has done there.
In the long run, we see more advantages to the region economically if the volcano becomes a national park. A park would likely be much-better funded, and the National Park label would bring tremendous marketing. To alleviate concerns about reduced access, a national park could be split into units with varying rules, such as those at North Cascades National Park. For instance, hunting and snowmobiling could still be allowed in a portion.
However, the park proposal likely won't move forward without wider local support. Cowlitz County Commissioner George Raiter has said that most county residents don't seem to favor a national park.
A missing voice is that of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who has said she'll weigh in this summer, when the Forest Service is due to report on its progress at the mountain. Anticipating that report, we can't see the wisdom of park proponents' call for spending up to $500,000 on yet a different study on whether the volcano would make a good national park.
Support for park status may grow over the years — or decades. Perhaps the 40th or 50th anniversary of the eruption will be marked by the opening of Mount St. Helens National Park.