It’s no wonder people thought Mount St. Helens would be a money machine.
In the weeks before the 1980 eruption, as the mountain let loose with preparatory bursts of ash and steam, thousands of tourists converged on southwestern Washington, desperate to see an honest-to-god volcano in action.
They sneaked around roadblocks into the hazardous “Red Zone.” They tramped through ash-blackened snow to the summit, tying T-shirts around their heads in order to breathe.
They pitched tents as close to the mountain as they could, some blithely bringing toddlers with them.
Before the spectacular and deadly sideways blast on May 18, an estimated 1,500 people from throughout the United States, Canada and Europe had created impromptu campgrounds on the boundaries of the Red Zone, cheering as ash billowed above them.
The urge to get close to the volcano was so strong, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray called out the National Guard to patrol roadblocks with M-16 rifles.
Fascination with the volcano continues to this day, and the mountain has obligingly let loose with smaller eruptions every few years, maintaining the intrigue. On average, the volcano and the surrounding Mount St. Helens National Monument get about 750,000 visitors a year.
But, try as they might, entrepreneurs in communities surrounding the mountain have never been able to turn the fascination into serious money.
For 30 years, their target has been the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the 110,000-acre monument and has the job of balancing the demands of various interest groups.
The controversy basically is over how to strike the balance between preservation and use.
Scientists and conservationists, who regard the volcano as a natural laboratory, want nature left alone. Tourism interests want more roads, campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, more organized activities and – most of all – more access into areas set off for scientific research.
This year, complaints reached a crescendo, with a rising chorus of voices – including that of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. – calling for the Forest Service to turn the monument over to the U.S. Park Service.
“The Forest Service has good people, but they’re not the best agency to manage this type of facility,” said Mark Plotkin, the director of tourism for Cowlitz County.
“At Mount Rainier, they have things that go on all day,” Plotkin said, “whether it’s campfire talks, hikes, wilderness viewing. There’s a whole chalkboard of activities all day long.”
“At Mount St. Helens there’s kind of a 10-to-4 kind of mentality,” he said. “There’s so much more that could be experienced.”
The controversy over which federal agency is better suited to watch over Mount St. Helens has simmered since well before the 1980 eruption. The most recent boil-up was caused by frustration over declining Forest Service spending.
A flood of federal dollars followed the 1980 eruption, paying for new roads, parking lots, bridges, trails and three visitor centers at Mount St. Helens along one 60-mile stretch of road.
The federal government spent $1.4 billion turning the volcano from disaster zone into tourist center in the early years, including $12.7 million on a bridge along the main tourist highway.
But the flood of money quickly dwindled to a trickle, even before the recent recession.
The budget dropped steadily from 1997 to 2007, declining from $3 million to a current plateau of about $1.7 million. (By way of comparison, Mount Rainier National Park’s current annual budget is $12.3 million.)
In recent years, monument managers have had to lay off 20 of 45 full-time employees; they’ve reduced hours, stopped plowing access roads in the winter and postponed maintenance of roads and trails.
Two years ago, the Forest Service shut the $11.5 million Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center in an attempt to deal with reduced funding for recreation programs.
Exhibits in the remaining visitor centers have begun looking like museum pieces, with outdated displays of volcanic monitoring equipment no longer in use.
Volunteers run most of the interpretive programs; they also work on trails and run the monument’s popular climbing program.
“The difficulty was in getting operations and maintenance money once the shiny new buildings were opened and the ribbon-cutting was over,” said conservationist Susan Saul. “That depends on appropriations.”
Saul has been fighting to preserve Mount St. Helens since the 1970s, back when the greatest threat was timber companies clear-cutting their way up the mountain’s flanks, helped by the Forest Service.
Saul isn’t sold on the idea of the Park Service taking over the monument. What needs to be fixed, she says, is how the Forest Service allocates money.
“The Forest Service has changed,” Saul said. “All the old timber beasts are gone. The current managers get it. They came here because they’re excited about the place. They just don’t have the resources to do the job.”
National parks are funded individually in the U.S. Department of the Interior budget, Saul pointed out. With the Forest Service, the welfare of the monument depends on other needs elsewhere within Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Nancy Parkes, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, helped write the legislation that created the monument back when she was a staffer for former U.S. Rep. Don Bonker.
She agrees with Saul.
“It isn’t a matter of individual people or their intent,” Parkes said. “It’s a matter of budget. That’s all it is.”
“The problem has been that the Forest Service hasn’t line-itemed the monument,” Parkes said. “In its budget, the monument is blended in with everything else the Forest Service does. If they happen to get a lot of fires in a particular year, then they have less money for the monument.”
Last year, frustration over the Forest Service’s cuts grew so intense that Sen. Cantwell publicly advocated bringing in the Park Service to take over.
Cantwell, along with U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, helped organize a Mount St. Helens Citizens Advisory Committee to conduct a comprehensive review of how best to manage the monument.
On April 13, after several months of hearings with local interest groups, the committee presented its findings to Washington’s congressional delegation in a video teleconference from Longview.
The committee stopped short of recommending the Park Service take over. The Forest Service should keep the monument, a majority of members said, but only if it starts spending more money.
“A vision for the future of the monument without the potential for adequate funding is no vision at all,” the committee’s official report says.Working primarily through Cantwell, who serves on the public lands and forests subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the delegation has been applying pressure on the Forest Service to shake loose more money.
If that doesn’t work, they say, they will schedule congressional oversight hearings.
Some of Mount St. Helens’ money problems have recently been alleviated independent of the committee’s efforts.
The monument received $6.5 million in federal Recovery Act stimulus funds. The money is being used for new interpretive signs, trail maintenance, a new outdoor theater at the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center and for a backlog of unattended maintenance, including $1 million in repairs to the now-closed Coldwater Creek Visitor Center.
Congressional pressure helped induce the Forest Service to come up with a new funding mechanism for prominent places such as Mount St. Helens that lie within the land it manages.
The agency’s budgets will now include “Valued Places” line items, which send money directly to the monument, rather than for system-wide programs.
This year, Mount St. Helens is getting money for eight additional staff members for this summer’s tourist season through the Valued Places program, a change that delights monument manager Tom Mulder.
“That’s pretty neat,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we added any staffing.”
Those changes are fine, Forest Service critics say, but they don’t go nearly far enough.
The economic stimulus funding was a one-time thing, and the Valued Places program offers no long-term certainty, they say those who want more tourism and greater access to restricted areas.
Plotkin, the Cowlitz County tourism director, has not been won over. What’s needed, he says, is revamping the whole approach.“We want perpetual funding,” he said. “The Forest Service could and should have done this stuff a long time ago. They don’t need Congress to reallocate money they already have.”
Plotkin says unless things change more dramatically, the push to make Mount St. Helens a national park will grow stronger.“I think there’s a high likelihood of that happening,” he said. “It’s not going to go away, and I think it’s going to gain some momentum.”