Idea of turning Mount St. Helens into national park intriguing

Since spring, I've heard rumblings from Mount St. Helens.

No, there is no imminent danger of eruption.

It's been talk, often just in passing, of whether Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument should become a national park.

That talk gained momentum in April when the U.S. Forest Service announced that it was planning to shut the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center in November and was transferring the Silver Lake center to the state. The matter resurfaced on Aug. 28, when the National Park Conservation Association lent its support to the idea.

Sean Smith, Northwest regional director for the association, and southwest Washington community leaders met Aug. 28 with Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., to present their case.

Smith focused on the three points:

More money would be available to protect the volcano's natural resources and enhance visitor experience.

The higher profile as a national park would increase visitation.

Bringing more people to the area will boost the tourism economy in gateway communities such as Castle Rock and Kelso.

"Currently, the United States has nearly 400 units in the national park system. However, only 58 are called national parks. The American public reserves this designation for only the most worthy sites such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mount Rainier. Mount St. Helens is on par with these places," Smith said.

"Mount St. Helens is a national and international gem. The volcano's natural wonders and the people who live and work in and around it deserve the highest recognition as a national park. The benefits of such a move far outweigh the negatives."

While the idea of turning Mount St. Helens into a national park is intriguing, I have several questions.

Is this the time to pursue this? The National Park Service is just getting started with its Centennial Challenge. As much as $3 billion could be spent in the years leading to the Park Service's 100th anniversary in 2016.

One might argue what better time to add Mount St. Helens to the park system. Or, you might argue the Park Service will be too busy focusing on current parks to consider this proposal.

What will happen to the U.S. Forest Service employees working at the monument? There are 16 permanent and 19 seasonal employees this season.

I can't imagine all would get jobs with the Park Service. If they didn't, does the Gifford Pinchot National Forest - the home of the monument - have the funds to keep employing them? Would the forest have the need fo r their particular skills? I would hate to see people suffer professionally or financially because of the switch.

Does the Park Service have the funds, or desire, to take on the monument's $1.8 million budget? There might be some savings by combining resources with nearby Mount Rainier National Park. But would Park Service leadership be willing to invest that much money annually, or more if it would expand operations and reduce a $13 million maintenance backlog?

How would the switch affect trad itional recreation in the area, including elk hunting? Smith argues the Park Service has the finances and methods to control the herd size. But elk are smart, and would soon learn that they won't be chased by hunters within the park boundary. Hunting is prohibited in national parks. That means fewer hunting opportunities, thus fewer hunters renting rooms and buying breakfast at local diners. The same question applies to activities like mountain biking on the Plains of Abraham.

Is there the political will to make the switch? The adage "it would take an act of Congress" can't ring any more true if this is to happen. The timing might be right, however, since the Park Service holds the upper hand over the Forest Service, in terms of visibility.

The idea of creating Mount St. Helens National Park intrigues me, and it would be a great complement to the three other national parks in our state. Imagine the tour buses parked in front of local motels as they carry visitors on a package tour from Mount St. Helens to Mount Rainier.

A great deal of energy will be needed to overcome the bureaucratic inertia this proposal faces. The two agencies have always kept a leery eye on each other, and power struggles dominate their early histories.