The Nov. 6 election is rapidly approaching, and improving the economy and creating good jobs is on everyone's mind.
Statewide, our economy is in tough shape, and is particularly hard hit in Washington's 3rd Congressional District. According to Washington's Employment Security Department, the district's unemployment rate is nearly two points higher than the state average. In Lewis County, unemployment is over 12 percent. District poverty rates are also troubling, as Lewis and Cowlitz counties are two of the poorest in the state.
Obviously, candidates should consider every idea that can improve our economy. That's why it's particularly troubling that few if any candidates are talking about the underutilized resource at the heart of our district: Mount St. Helens.
At the height of its popularity, more than 3 million visitors traveled to see the volcano. Tourism-related spending supported local businesses, including hotels, restaurants, and gas stations. Unfortunately, visitation numbers have dropped to a few hundred thousand, and tourism-related economies have all but blown away. Foreclosures and for-sale signs dot nearly every road leading to the volcano. There doesn't appear to be any end to the economic woes in sight.
I recently joined dozens of community leaders, business owners, local elected officials, and concerned citizens in calling for a study regarding the transfer of Mount St. Helens from the Forest Service to the National Park Service. Students from the University of Washington also recently released a report showing little progress over the years by the Forest Service's management of the volcano.
Evidently, the Forest Service is unable to provide the multifaceted leadership that this treasure deserves. Its decades-long failed experiment here clearly illustrates why the National Park Service is the agency that operates virtually every other national monument and our country's most special places.
National parks are huge economic engines, pumping more than $31 billion into the national economy. Washington state's 13 sites in the overall national park system (including historic trails and sites, monuments and recreation areas) were visited by more than 7 million people last year. Those visitors spent more than a quarter-billion dollars in communities surrounding the sites. Their spending also supported more than 5,600 jobs. If Washington's national parks were a business, they would be among the state's 10 biggest employers.
Meanwhile, counties home to Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades national parks have unemployment rates below the state average. Chelan County, which includes North Cascades National Park, has an unemployment rate of just 6 percent!
Some fear that elevating the volcano to a national park would result in an overwhelming number of visitors and the destruction of the natural wonders and wildlife people come to see. This is an unfounded fear. Our national park system is the gold standard for the entire world. For nearly 100 years, the National Park Service has balanced public access and recreation with conservation in nearly 400 sites. We can expect the same at Mount St. Helens.
Mount St. Helens is an international icon, a source of civic pride, and the heart of our region. Its transfer to the National Park Service could be an economic engine for the 3rd District as well as the entire state. I call upon political candidates at every level to put Mount St. Helens on their agenda. It must be a major part of their economic plan for our region.
Mike Senchyna is a retired Vancouver Fire battalion chief and former Mount St. Helens Volcano Rescue Team member.