There's an economic report out touting the benefits that a Mount St. Helens "National Park" would bring surrounding communities. And that begs the question of how much weight economics should be given when decisions are made on additions to the National Park System.
Under the NPS, Mount St. Helens is likely to enjoy more stable and potentially more bountiful funding. In addition, the prestige associated with designation as a National Park would attract a greater number of visitors. The economic benefits of such a designation would ripple through surrounding communities, and Washington State. Although redesignation may result in some minor use restrictions, these concerns can be mitigated, and any such loss almost certainly would be outweighed by the potential benefits.
Wouldn't a designation change be more soundly based on the natural resource or natural heritage contribution a prospective unit would make to the National Park System rather than the economic trickle down it would generate for surrounding communities?
In the case at hand, talk of transferring Mount St. Helens National Monument from the U.S. Forest Service to National Park Service arose back in July 2007 after the cash-strapped Forest Service announced it was going to close a visitor center in the monument, which the Forest Service has managed since it was designated in 1982.
As the Traveler noted then a year ago, switching the management of the 110,330-acre monument from one cash-starved agency to another cash-starved agency might not solve the fundamental problem of not having enough money to operate the three visitor centers at Mount St. Helens.
As for the latest economic report, which is attached below, it was prepared by the Kathy and Steve Berman Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Washington for the Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee. It immediately gained praise from the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Even during tough times, national parks such as Mount Rainier and Olympic are economic engines for their surrounding gateway communities,” said Sean Smith, NPCA Northwest regional director. “Given the difficult economic state of Cowlitz, Lewis, and Skamania counties, the University of Washington report shows it makes economic and ecological sense to add Mount St. Helens to the National Park System.”
The report suggests that moving Mount St. Helens from the Forest Service to the National Park Service will lead to increased funding and visitation -- critical to ensuring that the monument continues to provide educational and scientific research opportunities for the public as mandated by Congress in 1982.
According to the report, Mount St. Helens received approximately $3.26 per acre in federal funding from the Forest Service in 2007. In contrast, monuments within the Park Service received three to six times more funding on a per-acre basis than did Mount St. Helens in 2007.
Now, NPCA officials say research from Colorado State University has found that elevating a monument to a national park increases visitation by at least 11,000 visitors. Additionally, according to the University of Washington, a conservative estimate of the economic benefit of new visitors to Mount St. Helens’ surrounding communities would be nearly $400,000 in new spending. This economic surge would come just from travelers’ awareness of the new name of the monument, without a single dollar spent on new amenities or infrastructure.
“The designation of Mount St. Helens as a national park would provide clear economic value in the form of increased visitation to the site,” said James Pittman, managing director at Earth Economics in Tacoma, Washington.
Mr. Pittman, who was not associated with the production of the Environmental Law Clinic report, added, “Protection of healthy, intact ecosystems in national parks benefits our local economies.”
The report also suggests that nearby Fort Vancouver and Lewis and Clark National Historic parks might also benefit from additional visitors if Mount St. Helens was designated as a national park.
If the "national park" suffix carries such economic cachet, should all 391 units of the National Park System carry the brand? Heavens knows the folks living near Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah would love to see that unit upgraded to a "national park." And for years there has been talk of turning Dinosaur National Monument into a "national park."
Back at NPCA, Mr. Smith tells the Traveler that while economics certainly are important, they shouldn't be the sole factor in determining additions to the National Park System or how units are classified.
"NPCA is not saying that national park protection and creation should hinge solely on the potential economic value of that land," he says. "NPCA would argue for park creation of worthy sites even if it didn't make economic sense (ie. protection of Civil War battlefields immediately come to mind). However, we would be laying down one of our strongest arguments if we ignored evidence that shows protecting national parks makes both ecological and economic sense."
To that extent, Mr. Smith notes that "conservation groups such as NPCA are often confronted by industry representatives and others who claim that 'locking land up' in national parks is bad for regional economies. The UW and Harder report show otherwise. "
More so, he points out that "what is going to carry the day (in terms of moving the monument to the Park Service) with the task force (made up of communities members of the affected counties) and in turn Rep. Brian Baird are the economic arguments. NPCA also believes that adding Mount St. Helens to the park system will afford many resources better protection and care than under current Forest Service management."
"NPCA also believes adding Mount St. Helens to the system will possibly provide better opportunities for the reintroduction of species such as the grey wolf," says Mr. Smith.
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade believes "economics should not be the driver," when it comes to designations, but adds that "the lines have become very blurred about what qualities a national park has, or should have, versus other designations."
In the end, says Mr. Wade, "Considering areas already in the system, there is absolutely no reason not to consider Mt. St. Helens worthy of being included in the National Park System, but not, in any way, because it would improve economic conditions in the monument or the area around it."