Resolution reignites Mount St. Helens debate

Cowlitz County declines to act on call to retain forest service management

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A three-county resolution calling for continued forest service management of Mount St. Helens stalled Tuesday after Cowlitz County commissioners declined to jump on board.

Lewis and Skamania counties both approved the resolution late last month, affirming their support of the U.S. Forest Service overseeing the national volcanic monument -- and their opposition to making Mount St. Helens a national park. But Cowlitz County commissioners opted not to make that statement during their Tuesday meeting.

Cowlitz County didn’t reject the resolution outright. Commissioners simply declined to act on it. But they made it clear that’s not a slight against the job the forest service has done -- in fact, all three stated their support for the agency during the meeting, said Commissioner George Raiter. The group may take a position later, but wanted the conversation to continue in the meantime, he said.

“I think Cowlitz County was very fair weighing out their responsibilities,” said Mark Smith, owner of EcoPark Resort just west of the monument boundary.

The debate over what to do with Mount St. Helens has smoldered for years. Supporters of national park status have said the landmark needs more stable funding and could improve visitor numbers with better management. Others favor keeping the mountain -- and the recreational opportunities it offers -- under the watch of the forest service.

In 2009, a broad citizen committee recommended the latter path, but the group added a long list of improvements it wanted to see happen at the mountain. Advocates have recently said now is the time to take a harder look at Mount St. Helens’ future.

Smith, a co-founder of Friends of Mount St. Helens, counts himself in that camp. But he stressed his group is not necessarily pushing for national park status or any other single outcome. Rather, the ultimate goal is to elevate the mountain as a destination, create a better visitor experience and benefit the communities that surround it, he said. Efforts to fight a national park now are misplaced, he added.

“That has not been defined,” Smith said. “That’s why we need the study.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, last month indicated in a letter that she would help revisit the topic this summer.

The forest service has made significant strides on the 110,000-acre monument recently, said monument manager Tom Mulder. He pointed to the reopening of the former Coldwater Ridge Visi

tor Center as a science and learning facility this year, and a new outdoor amphitheater that now greets visitors at nearby Johnston Ridge Observatory. The forest service made other smaller improvements at Johnston Ridge last year.

Those additions were made possible by one-time federal stimulus dollars. But managers continue to reach out to local communities and organizations to maximize the benefit long term, Mulder said.

“We’re still on a pathway for bigger, better things,” he said.

The resolution supporting forest service management came from the neighboring counties themselves, said Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose, and Cowlitz County’s decision not to approve it Tuesday came as a surprise. Forest officials need surrounding communities’ support, he said, not more study.

“Why change horses in the middle of the stream?” Grose said. “We feel they’ve done the job that they were asked to do.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.