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Johnston Ridge Observatory
Johnston Ridge Observatory visitors pour over the details about dome building eruptions at Mount St. Helens in May.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Axel Swanson — one of three co-chairman of a committee that recommended the U.S. Forest Service retain control of the Mount St. Helens area — now says the area should become a National Park.

"I've been on the (National Park) bandwagon for most of the summer," Swanson said in an interview Wednesday. "I really don't know how much faith I have that the Forest Service can accomplish the (committee's) two major goals" — better funding and a higher national profile for the volcano.

Swanson was one of three co-chairman of the Mount St. Helens Advisory committee, formed by members of the state's congressional delegation to recommend improvements for management and use of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Debate about whether the 110,000-acre area should run by the National Park Service or remain with the Forest Service has simmered for more than two years. Park Service supporters say the area would get more money, upkeep and promotion as a national park. Forest Service advocates say they'd lose access for hunting and hiking if the status changed.

The advisory committee in March 2009 recommended sticking with the Forest Service, provided that funding could be increased and marketing improved. In April, the 14-person committee warned that the Forest Service was going to have to prove it could meet the goals or they'd change recommendations.

Swanson said he's not seeing enough progress.

"The recommendations have been public for over a year ... and (if the Forest Service can't meet the goals) we might as well have the money and promotion that the Park Service can do," he said.

The volcano received millions in federal stimulus funds this year. However, Swanson said it needs that amount of money every year, "and it doesn't look like that's going to happen with the Forest Service."

That said, Swanson said it's also key to protect the right to hunt and fish in the area.

His committee co-chairmen, though, haven't changed their minds — at least not yet.

"I think it's premature," Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce said Friday. "Axel hasn't shared that with me, and I just met with (Lewis County Commissioner and fellow co-chair) Lee Grose yesterday and he didn't say anything."

Grose couldn't be reached Friday afternoon.

Pearce said he thinks the committee should wait at least until the proposed 2012 Forest Service budget comes out before deciding about changing a position. The budget was due to the White House this month but likely won't be released until October or November.

"I'm not saying that I'm going to wait two or three years, but I want to give them time to see what the next budget looks like," Pearce said.

While his fellow chairmen haven't changed their minds, Swanson's November commissioner race opponent agreed with him.

James Misner also favors National Park status for the volcano, saying it's a no-brainer to get the area more money and more tourists. He favors making the Monument and some land around it a national park and said the remaining portions of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest could remain with the Forest Service to allow the greatest possible access.

Right now, though, Misner said the Monument "doesn't get any more (budget) priority status than a tree falling in the road. In fact, the tree gets more."

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