Should the NPS Be Given Mount St. Helens?

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Both the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service are hamstrung by deficient budgets. In the case of the Forest Service, one symptom of its financial plight is that the agency wants to close a visitor center at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. That move has spurred calls that the Park Service be given the monument to manage, and the National Parks Conservation Association now is echoing those calls.

But should Mount St. Helens be given such status? As Jeremy Sullivan pointed out a month ago, (S)witching the management of the mountain from one cash-starved agency to another cash-starved agency may not solve the fundamental problem of not having enough money to operate the three visitor centers at St Helens.

Too, he pointed out that Washington state's congressional delegates, the ones who now are being lobbied to push the Park Service to take over Mount St. Helens, could solve the immediate problem by working to better fund the Forest Service.

But the NPCA seems to see the Forest Service's budgetary struggles as a perfect opening to add another jewel to the park system.

“Mount St. Helens is a national gem. The volcano and the surrounding communities deserve the recognition that come with national park status,” says Sean Smith, NPCA's Northwest regional director. “Placing Mount St. Helen’s under the care of the Park Service would ensure the volcano’s natural wonders are preserved for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

While it'd be hard to argue that Mount St. Helens isn't worthy of park status, can the Park Service afford it at this point in time? After all, the agency already has an $8 billion backlog of maintenance needs, and its annual budget falls roughly $800 million shy of what the agency needs, according to the NPCA.

At a time when the Park Service is leasing facilities to private interests because it can't afford to maintain them, I wonder how it could possibly afford to take on Mount St. Helens.

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Jeers Outnumber Cheers For Volcano National Park Idea


Are three visitor centers necessary?

As I mentioned last time this came up, there is enormous pressure on the Forest Service for mining, forest and (intrusive) recreational use within the boundaries of the monument. Because the Forest Service's mission is not about protection of the resource, but best use of the resource, the Forest Service is prone to give in to these commercial interests. Mount St. Helens is too vital to science and the public to be parced out to private interests. The amount of compromise so far in the monument is unacceptable (already the boundaries are way too small and porous).

No, the Park Service can't afford governing the area any more than the Forest Service. But I hope that doesn't stop us from protecting areas that ought to be protected. Mount St. Helens is of significant interest to the public and to science. We have arguably learned more from the 1980 eruption about explosive volcanic events than any previous event and the recovery information we're receiving from the blast zone is vital to so many areas of interest. This is a place that deserves park status if ever one does.

When Lassen exploded in 1915, Congress moved to protect the area to ensure the public's interest. It's time we do the same for Mount St. Helens.

If both NPS & USFS are strapped for cash, what difference is the transfer except that Mount St. Helens will receive the protection it deserves and stop the ravishing from commercial interests?

And one more thing, the USFS does not operate three visitor centers in the monument. It used to, but one visitor center (Silver Lake) is now operated by the Washington State Parks and Recreation department and it isn't located in the monument, but several miles away near Interstate 5. Two are left and one is being closed. The one left, the Johnston Ridge Observatory, is essentially a bookstore, a movie theatre and a viewing platform. The visitor center that is closing (Coldwater Ridge) was the one with most of the interpretive displays. This will leave hardly any interpretive opportunities in the monument.

It seems like the USFS lacks the ability to mange a protected area with significant public interest. And given the other National Monuments administered by the USFS, they don't need this ability. Besides the two huge NMs in Alaska (Admiralty Island NM and Misty Fjords NM), the USFS manages tiny Giant Sequoia National Monument, California (just outside Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP), Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains NM near Palm Springs, California (Jointly with the BLM) and there is Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Oregon and of course Mount St. Helens.

No other NM besides Mount St. Helens has a significant number of visitors. USFS simply isn't used to deal with keeping the balance between tourism and protection in a highly visible NM. So while the NPS lacks funding too, they at least have the experience how to manage protected areas with high public interest.

As I mentioned last time this came up, there is enormous pressure on the Forest Service for mining, forest and (intrusive) recreational use within the boundaries of the monument. Because the Forest Service's mission is not about protection of the resource, but best use of the resource, the Forest Service is prone to give in to these commercial interests.

I hear what you're saying, but there seems to be a flip side as well. By providing special places to manage in a different, more protective manner, the FS may begin to evolve toward greater stewardship. It's difficult to help change the culture of an agency if all you do is take away the best places and give them to the park service.

A similar tact is being taken with BLM's system of protected lands, called the National Landscape Conservation System. The Clinton/Babbitt strategy of giving the BLM (aka, Bureau of Livestock and Mining) some nice protected places seems to be having a slow - but steady - effect on the way the agency does day to day business. As long as the agency doesn't completely blow it, I believe that you can help slowly steer the ship in the right direction (ie, resource conservation and sustainability over resource extraction and "traditional use").

Scott. |

"USFS simply isn't used to deal with keeping the balance between tourism and protection in a highly visible NM. "

hold on a minute...

maybe not a "highly visible NM" but they do manage highly visible, heavily used national forests- many national forests get way more visitation than the parks and are coping with much smaller budgets. san bernardino, wasatch-cache and maybe a few more near the front range of colorado come to mind... and there is no off season. i would put money on the fact that some of these forests have visitor centers that get more visitation in a weekend than some nps units receive in a year and are additionally on par or exceed annual visitation at yellowstone or yosemite.

kurt- i'd like to see some numbers on this, to compare, if we're going to banter about nps vs. usfs and visitor centers and who should manage. i mean, really, it's not like you often even see uniformed rangers in the nps visitor centers (save zion, you see them there) last three visits to capitol reef were vols, saw no uniforms (concessionaire employees!) in bryce, retirees (vols) in yellowstone and i guess escalante doesn't count because they're blm anyway. i guess my issue is it's not like nps is the only land management agency out there dealing with the crowds. if you look at the population explosion out west, where the bulk of public land is, everyone is forced to deal with increased visitation trends these days.

disclosure: i do not work for the usfs, i think it would drive me crazy.

oh, and often times the agencies close things to get visitors to call politicians to get them to start funding things adequately... it's an effective "shaming" tool for getting politicians attention.

Coldwater Ridge should remain open. We visited Mt. St. Helens in April and would not have been able to if it was not open then. This resource is very valuable for the general public and teachers such as myself.

True, the event on 1980 marked a unique and significant geological opportunity for ecological and geothermal studies "right in our own backyard". The results were catastrophic in terms of environmental impact, while at the same time invaluable in the seismic and geothermal data that were collected. Most noteworthy has been the replenishment of plant and animal life at a far greater pace than previously thought possible by E&E scientists. While many scars still remain and the local geography and topography have been forever altered, and while there can be no arguement for this region being termed volcanically active, I would like to pose a few questions. Are we prepared to designate any or all future eruption sites are National Parks? Aside from chronology, what criterion are to be utilized to denote this event from probably future events in the same or any other range of mountains? There is mounting evidence and data currently being collected that strongly suggest other probable volcanically active sites beyond the Cascades. And while Volcanos National Park gained status as a national park through the usual "unique character" clause and to some degree due to its remote location and the novel character of the Hawaiian Island chain of ancient volcanic mountain builders, where are we prepared to draw the line in the sand? Should the area of the Mississippi River where it's channel was permanently altered by the New Madrid earthquake be designated a National Park, or monument or preserve?
Are any other remnants of natural disasters within the scope of presevation? My vote would be to nix the NPS acquisition of Mt. St. Helens, consider status with other capable organizations (e.g., the State Park system of Washington?) and manage it from within. There happen to be more than a few local individuals with the resources to assist in both direct and indirect fiscal subsidies, as is common to many public facilities across the nation. I submit for reference funding sources at the Grand Tetons. Any other ideas?

Lone Hiker makes some good points and raises some good questions that should be explored.

As I've noted several times over the past two years, Congress is quick to designate national park system units, but not so quick to adequately fund them. The result? Well, there's that $8 billion maintenance backlog for starters, as well as the National Park Service's trend toward replacing full-time rangers with volunteers because it simply can't cover all the bases.

Lines need to be drawn, both to whittle down the Park Service's budget problems and, frankly, to protect the integrity of the park system. Now, that's not to say that adding Mount St. Helens would damage the integrity. I think a sound argument can be made for its inclusion. But as Lone Hiker questions, where do you stop? If the Park Service budget were solidly in the black, I'd probably jump on the bandwagon. But it's not.

Frank and Beamis more than once have called for a reordering of the Park Service, and one project whose time perhaps has arrived is taking a good, hard look at the various units and deciding whether they truly deserve to be within the national park system.

Many of the areas that would be deemed, by this process of reordering, to be less than full blown "national treasures" would find their new status as state and municipal parks or privately run museums and trusts to be a vast improvement in their preservation and interpretation. Many parks that currently languish in the lower tier of NPS properties would notice an improvement almost immediately from the more focused attention and dare I say love from its more dedicated and locally focused management.

Some immediate suggestions: Cape Canaveral National Seashore (especially the north unit) would make a swell Florida state park. There is nothing of national significance about this storm washed barrier strand that requires the U.S. taxpayer to fund in perpetuity. Starting next year the NPS will begin charging $7 per person ($28 for a family of four!) to enter what is already an underused and seldom visited beach area. There is no reason that Florida or even Volusia County couldn't run this beach in the same spartan and low-key manner the NPS already does. Not a "crown jewel" but still nice enough to visit and be run by locals. Florida charges $4 per vehicle to enjoy all of its state parks including beaches far more spectacular than Canaveral.

Pipe Spring National Monument is a Mormon pioneer focused historical site that could be run much more effectively and with much greater funding by the LDS Church. They own and operate many wonderful historical sites throughout the country which have state of the art interpretive services and visitor centers as well as elaborate living history programs that capture the lives and struggles of their pioneer period. Some of the units include Cove Fort in Millard County, UT, the Jacob Hamblin Home and Brigham Young's winter home in St. George, UT.

Pipe Spring is NOT nationally significant and would be a fine addition to an already impressive collection of pioneer historical parks run by this church. The LDS Church spares no expense in maintaining their sites, which cannot be said of many of the small monuments and historical sites run by the NPS. Pipe Spring is certainly one that we could afford to transfer to a better and more enthusiastic steward.

I have many other examples which I could also expound upon including Gateway NRA, Cedar Breaks NM, Steamtown NHS, Keweenaw NHP and Golden Gate NRA to name but a few. I think that if many of these areas could be transferred or reassigned to other entities there would be more funds available to maintain the true "crown jewels" that were the original core function of the NPS. Stopping politicians from putting "park barrel" in their districts would be another angle from which to attack this from but I've taken up enough space for one day.

I think it's a little harsh to say that Steamtown isn't 'nationally significant' because it and Golden Spike are the only 2 NPS units that I am aware of that preserve our nation's railroading history. Without railroads, the West wouldn't have been opened nearly was quickly.

That being said, there are many NPS sites that are worthy of protection, but aren't nationally significant...

President, CHS SPEAK (CHS Students Promoting Environmental Action & Knowledge)
Founder and President, CHS Campus Greens

MSH, because of its easy access to the public and science affords a unique ability to watch the natural processes of regeneration - a regeneration process which requires park status protection. There are lots of areas outside the monument where Weyerhauser and others can study the effects of timber planting and other intrusions into the natural cycle, but unless MSH is fully protected from "use," it's value to science and to the public's interests as a scenic geological area will become even more compromised than it has been already.

No one's suggesting that every time a volcano blows in the lower 48 it be turned into a NP... though to be honest, all that have erupted in historical times are in NPs EXCEPT Mount St. Helens... the one we have the chance to watch regenerate both biologically and geologically from the its major eruptive event.

As for the idea that the Forest Service will somehow become an instrument of protection rather than use, if Gifford Pinchot couldn't be convinced, it ain't gonna happen 100 years later. The Forest Service may learn how to better allow private use, but it will never cease private use. It's completely contrary to their mission.

And therein lies my argument. MSH has historical, geological, scenic, scientific and cultural value for all Americans. It deserves to be protected for future generations. It will not be under the Forest Service.

RE: Steamtown

From Wikipedia:

Allegations had been made, especially within the mass media, that Steamtown was a "pork barrel" project prior to its building. Some criticized the United States National Park Service, which runs Steamtown, for using mostly Canadian locomotives (inherited from the Steamtown USA operation in Bellows Falls, VT) as working locomotives, although many American locomotives and cars are on display. While the collection within the museum and the rolling stock for excursions have been restored, many pieces of rolling stock that are quite visible to the public are in deplorable condition and face an uncertain future. Some of the most significant pieces of rolling stock (i.e. DL&W 565, one of two surviving Lackawanna Railroad steam engines) have not been restored.

It also costs $5M to operate; that's more than many "crown jewels".

RE: Saint Helens

Leaving land to recover naturally ("preserving"?) needs no funding, and enjoying it in its natural state costs nothing. The funding is for the public's enjoyment of paved mountain highways and extravagantly expensive visitor centers. And its parasitic managers take a cut. Preserving places is cheap; enjoying places in our modern mammonish age is expensive.

@Frank: "Leaving land to recover naturally ("preserving"?) needs no funding". This is quite simplified, because there is substantial research and documentation but let's say it were true. But a National Monument (even more a potential National Park) at MSH is about access to the recovering landscape and interpreting the processes to the interested public. And this requires substantial funding for constructing access roads and parking, visitor centers, maintaining them, enforcing the rules, manning exhibitions and information desks and what ever else is needed.

Congress wanted MSH to be a National Monument, it was funded lavishly in the beginning. The Silver Lake Visitor Center had everything imaginable and got awards for architecture and exhibitions. And even after almost 30 years there are many Americans and tourists from overseas who want to see a recently erupted volcano, see the marred landscape and recovering flora and fauna. There obviously is demand for education, interpretation and/or simply the entertainment and the thrill to see the forces of nature. The Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center is not to be closed for lack of visitors.

It MSH worth to be managed on the federal level? Congress said yes in 1982. This can be reevaluated, of course. Are there established criteria? You may want to check license plates at the visitor parking. Or you may take a look at the international interest MSH gets. Just one indicator might be Wikipedia. Right now(*) there are 28 so called interwiki links at - meaning that besides English, people from 28 other languages and cultures find Mount St. Helens worth an article in their language, including Bahasa Indonesia, Estonian and Croatian language.

* permanent link to the current version:

THANK YOU, Mr. Williams. I absolutely agree.

I agree, I worked for the Forest Service in a Ranger Station very near to the Monument and they do not know how to manage an area for the person that just wants to visit the area. Thier specialty is managing it for many uses, thus thier motto. The best example is thier pass system, for most people this is very, very confusing. A typical visitor sees Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and automaticly think it is part of the National Park Service and all it's standard nuances.

Commissioners rescind support for national park around volcano
By Barbara LaBoe
Oct 31, 2007

Link here:

Yes of course. the more publicity the better it is