When Mount St. Helens spectacularly erupted in 1980, it created a mammoth volcanic crater that today is the centerpiece of a national monument that draws thousands of visitors from around the world.
But more than a quarter-century after President Ronald Reagan and Congress established the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, it is plagued by poor funding, dwindling visitors and inadequate facilities, placing it at the center of an ongoing debate over whether the 110,000-acre site would be better managed by the National Park Service than by the Forest Service, which currently oversees it.
The national monument sits within the 1.3-million-acre Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington. Critics say the Forest Service lacks the resources to maintain the site, pointing to a nearly $23 million backlog of road repair and maintenance projects.
The struggles at Mount St. Helens highlight broader problems at the Forest Service that are the result of years of steep budget cuts and skyrocketing firefighting costs that have diverted millions of dollars from upkeep and maintenance programs at all 155 national forests.
With hopes of reversing the monument's diminishing stature, Washington's congressional delegation is exploring a transfer of the Mount St. Helens property to the National Park Service. Such a move would entitle Mount St. Helens to direct appropriations from Congress and end the Forest Service's practice of raiding the monument's budget to meet other priorities.
But the Forest Service, an agency of the Agriculture Department, will not quietly cede its high-profile property to the Park Service and its overseers at the Department of the Interior.
"The Forest Service really feels we're the appropriate land management agency for the monument," said Tom Mulder, the monument manager at the Mount St. Helens site. "We have a long history there. But we recognize that we are challenged by funding."
User groups remain in conflict over the proposal.
Recreational users, for example, fear that turning Mount St. Helens into a national park will restrict hunting and the use of off-highway vehicles, two of the site's most popular activities. Others say raising Mount St. Helens' status to a national park would attract additional development that may compromise the area's wild and remote character. Though Mount St. Helens continued to spew ash in the years immediately after the 1980 event, making adjacent development impossible, the volcano is now stable, and visitors can climb freely on its slopes and even camp in its shadow, officials said.
Mike Reedy, chairman of the Backcountry Horsemen of America, said he is concerned that under Park Service control, miles of horse trails that were buried in ash after the 1980 eruption will never reopen. "That's why we support leaving it with the Forest Service," he said.
Still, Reedy and others do not deny that a lack of funding has left trails and campgrounds unkempt and resulted in the closing of facilities like public view stations and visitor centers.
In fact, it was the closure of the monument's popular Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center two years ago that prompted Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and other members of Washington's congressional delegation to begin exploring whether the monument should become a national park. Since then, the Forest Service has turned over another tourist facility, the Silver Lake Visitor Center, to the Washington state parks department.
A 14-member advisory committee of local lawmakers, business leaders, scientists and residents spent more than a year exploring the proposal and last month issued a draft recommendation against making Mount St. Helens the state's fourth national park property. Instead, the committee said, the property should receive funding under a mandatory line item within the Forest Service budget.
But proponents of a transfer remain optimistic that they can convince Washington's delegation to press forward with the proposal, which ultimately requires congressional approval.
Sean Smith, northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the only way for the monument to realize its full potential is for it to become a national park. He points to the slightly larger Mount Rainier National Park 50 miles to the north, which has an annual budget six times that of the Mount St. Helens monument and where the Park Service is expanding facilities, including building a new visitor center.
"I think in the end, given the benefits that would come from adding the monument to the park system, the community and the state would be far better off if Mount St. Helens is added to the national park system," Smith said.
But Dale Bosworth, the Forest Service's former chief, who retired in 2007 and now lives in Missoula, Mont., said he thinks such a move would be shortsighted.
"All the money's coming from the same federal government, so it's kind of crazy to say that just because the National Park Service happens to be better funded right now ... the Forest Service should give the monument away," Bosworth said. "To me, that doesn't make sense."
Mounting firefighting costs
But there remain intractable issues for the Forest Service that may keep Mount St. Helens from reaching its full recreational potential, including the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in the West.
Congress determines the Forest Service's annual firefighting budget by averaging firefighting costs over the previous 10 years. Recent budgets have dedicated nearly half of the agency's $4.5 billion appropriation to firefighting and fire-prevention projects. But in five of the previous seven years, fires have consumed even more of the agency's resources.
For example, the Forest Service exhausted all $1.9 billion of its wildfire funds last summer as fire raged across California, forcing the agency to pull about $400 million from other programs.
"Every year now, we go though this annual raid on all other activities on national forests," said Greg Aplet, an ecologist and senior forest scientist at the Wilderness Society's regional office in Denver.
While firefighting costs have been climbing, the Forest Service's overall annual budget has been shrinking.
Under the fiscal 2009 budget that ends in September, the Bush administration slashed $1.2 billion from the Forest Service's overall spending but increased firefighting allocations by about $30 million, according to federal budget records.
"That obviously means you have to take a whole lot more out of other programs to fund fire suppression," Bosworth said.
The pattern needs to stop, said Bosworth, who with four other former Forest Service chiefs has urged Congress to address the issue.
"The Forest Service is charged with maintaining 193 million acres of forests nationwide," Bosworth said. "It doesn't make sense to take money away from those things to put into firefighting."
President Obama and Congress are moving on two fronts to address the problems that have put the Mount St. Helens monument in peril.
The proposed "Federal Land, Assistance, Maintenance and Enhancement Act" would establish an annual contingency fund allowing the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior access to hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars to cover wildfire budget shortfalls. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) in the Senate and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) in the House, the bill is moving quickly through both houses of Congress.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has proposed establishing a contingency fund of $282 million for USDA, said Cecelia Clavet, a policy analyst for national forests with the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C.
In addition, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included more than $500 million for fire-suppression projects. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week that the Forest Service would immediately make available about $20 million in economic stimulus money for wildland fire protection projects in four states in an effort to reduce the risks of catastrophic forest fires (Greenwire, March 17).
Meanwhile, firefighting challenges will only grow more difficult as residential and commercial development encroaches ever closer to public lands. A November 2006 audit by USDA's inspector general warned that the "escalating cost to fight fires is largely due to [the Forest Service's] efforts to protect private property" bordering public land.
"If you think fire costs are high now, just wait until these wildland urban interface zones are completely developed," said Chris Mehl, policy director for Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Mont.-based research group that receives funding from the Forest Service and BLM to study these issues.
Wildfire frequency and intensity are also projected to rise as climate change produces higher average temperatures across the West and shorter winters, experts say. Shorter winters are particularly problematic because they aid the spread of bark beetles that have wiped out tens of millions of trees, from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming to the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest on the Colorado-Wyoming border (Land Letter, Oct. 9, 2008).
All those dead trees are "fuel" to feed fires, said Steve Running, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana.
"Global warming, little by little, is making the odds go up that big fires will become more common, and that some of these will get to a point to where we can't stop them," he said.
Saving Mount St. Helens
Against this troubling backdrop, the congressionally appointed advisory committee will issue its final report on the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in May.
While some see a direct line-item funding measure for the Mount St. Helens monument as a way to refill its coffers and upgrade its facilities, others remain uncertain. Mulder, the Forest Service's monument manager, cautioned that a line item in an appropriations bill means Washington's congressional delegation will need to fight each year for the money needed to manage the monument site.
"We need to be careful what we wish for," Mulder said. "If we sever the monument from the normal appropriations process, then if for some reason the earmark was not there for future years, we'd be in a tough place."
He is not the only one with reservations about the proposal.
When Mark Smith was first appointed to the 14-member advisory committee, he said he was sure it would be a bad idea to take the national monument away from the Forest Service.
Now, Smith is convinced it would be a bad idea not to.
Smith, owner of the Eco Park Resort near the monument site, said the current problems are about more than just money. The Forest Service, he said, has failed to adequately promote and market the monument, nor has it worked to improve viewing areas and information stations near the crater -- all of which were identified as priorities by the Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee.
"The Forest Service has done an incredible job with the resources they have been given," Smith said. "But if you look at the things we identified as concerns and what we'd like to see changed, that model fits a National Park Service plan better than a Forest Service plan."
Smith said he plans to lobby the committee to at least consider what the monument would look like as a national park before making its final recommendations to Congress in the coming weeks.
"We haven't seen that yet," he said.
Considering the site's notoriety and historical significance, Smith said, the only logical conclusion is to make it a national park.
"People from all over the world travel here to see it, and we need to open our minds and make sure we're able to share it with everyone the way it should be," he said. "But with the Forest Service closing visitor centers and not marketing the monument, we have a lot of disappointed people who come here from around the world to see this."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.