Sunday, October 30, 2005

Still no boom in volcano tourism

How do you take the largest landslide in recorded history and turn it into an eruption of money?For 25 years, people in the tourism industry have been asking that question about Mount St. Helens. They're disappointed that the volcano hasn't attracted more visitors' dollars.The big tourism magnet officials envisioned has never developed. Merchants along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway particularly lament the lack of recreation and the tourist dollars it could bring on this side of the volcano.

A turning point occurred last week, when the U.S. Forest Service announced it will accept bids for privately run operations near the peak. Some of the ideas are to allow private firms to operate the volcano visitor centers, build tourist cabins and yurts, offer helicopter tours from Johnston Ridge and rent boats on Coldwater Lake.

As someone who's covered Mount St. Helens recreation since before the eruption, I think some of the latest ideas have merit, though yurts and guided hikes wouldn't make much difference to the overall economy. But higher entrance fees for the visitor centers might deter tourists.There's no question that Mount St. Helens is a magnificent spot.

The problem from an economic point of view is that after you've gazed into the crater or hiked one of the many trails surrounding the peak, there isn't much to spend money on. The Forest Service's general attitude since 1981 has been to attract only as many people to the peak as it can manage. The original closure zone was far larger than need for safety, and the attitude persists. The feeling is understandable, considering the agency's diminishing budget.It's important to note that the Forest Service isn't offering to build anything new around the volcano now -- it can't afford to maintain what it already has. The agency is instead suggesting that private bidders use existing parking lots and centers.

A broader debate is due in 2009, when the Forest Service will revise the comprehensive management plan for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including Mount St. Helens.But for now, here are my thoughts:Too many visitor centersIn the post-eruption euphoria to build tourism facilities, no fewer than five visitor centers were built along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The Forest Service provided three, and Weyerhaeuser and Cowlitz County both built their own centers.

It was two or three more than necessary.The string of centers along the 54--mile-long highway confuses first-time visitors. They may spend too much time looking at exhibits down below, leaving little time for the actual peak experience -- including the sight of the real thing smoking away.Cowlitz County is stuck with an imposing Hoffstadt Bluffs center that can't compete with the others for views or exhibits.

Barely able to make payments on the structure, the county is trying to sell it.The Forest Service doesn't have enough money to maintain its three visitor centers and hopes someone from the private sector will step forward. But if the current $3 entry fee doesn't cover expenses, it's likely a private operator would charge more, which wouldn't do anything to lure more tourists. Next year, the entrance fee at Mount Rainier National Park will be $15 per vehicle.No rooms with viewsThe Forest Service suggests setting up yurt camps or cabins at Coldwater Ridge, Bear Meadow and the Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

Yurts are wildly popular at state parks and would be here, too.Unlike other Northwest scenic wonders, Mount St. Helens has no lodge. Mount Rainier has the Paradise Inn, Mount Hood has the Timberline Lodge and the Crater Lake Lodge overlooks that beautiful lake.But the volcano isn't likely to get a lodge anytime soon.

For one thing, the area is not served with basic utilities such as water and sewer. And those lodges were built decades ago, when federal funding was easier to get.If a private investor were to offer to build a lodge near Coldwater Ridge, fine. But little new lodging has been built along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway or in Cougar in the past quarter century, an indication of how much demand there really is.Why not some campgrounds, too?The Forest Service is proposing letting a concessionaire manage RV parking in lots at its visitor centers.

But not everyone who camps has an RV, and those who do would prefer a campground to a parking lot. The closest camping to the peak on this side is at Seaquest State Park near Toutle. The Forest Service should consider building campgrounds closer to the peak, which of course would require federal funds.One possible location is on Weyerhaeuser land, the a relatively flat spot where Maratta Creek crosses Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

On the opposite side of the mountain, there are several potential camping sites in the Bean Creek drainage. The campground at Kalama Springs, wiped out by a mudflow, could be rebuilt, or another campground could be built nearby.The lure of the lakes I've hiked to the north shore of Spirit Lake several times with researchers. It's a pleasant place and not a difficult hike, but it's off-limits to the public.People within the Forest Service have suggested building a trail to the lake off the existing Truman Trail. But if it were built, people might want to catch some of those 5-pound trout swarming the waters that are now closed to fishing.

Forest Service researchers don't want people upsetting the natural recovery at the lake -- but the fish, in fact, were planted, making them not exactly natural.In any case, there's already fine fishing at Coldwater Lake, which has a boat ramp and a very impressive fish-cleaning station.The Forest Service will accept proposals to rent boats there. Coldwater Lake is a beautiful place to cruise in a battery-powered boat -- just don't forget an extra battery because it gets windy.Another idea: Crater Lake allows one eco-friendly tourism excursion boat -- perhaps a model for something here.

A research regimeOne of the reasons access is restricted around Mount St. Helens is to protect research that has been occurring since shortly after the eruption. Researchers don't want people trampling the plots that measure plant growth, or kicking over mammal traps.Though the researchers are relatively few in number, they are sometimes blamed for deterring economic development. But the real issue is the limited carrying capacity of 230 square miles of blasted landscape.Opening up more land to off-trail travel would appeal to hikers who aren't exactly saturating the backcountry now.

The vast majority of tourists want to drive to their location -- for which they already have a good network of roads. Read on....A dead-end road propositionThe Forest Service built three visitor centers in the 1980s and now cannot afford to operate them. This should be a warning to those who want to extend Spirit Lake Memorial Highway across the Spirit Lake basin --- at a cost estimated as high as $40 million.Road maintenance across the crumbly soils would be expensive. The route is right in the path of mudflows that might flow out of the crater, and the narrow, winding Forest Service roads 25 and 99 connecting from the east would need improvement.

All this for a road that would be open about six months a year because of snowfall -- if an ash cloud doesn't close it completely.If the government is going to spend millions of dollars to help the economy of counties east of the peak, a much better use for the funding would be a resort in the Randle-Packwood area, with luxurious rooms, a golf course, award-winning chef, etc. For a model, look to the Skamania Lodge in the Columbia River Gorge, with its splendid views, classy cuisine and large conference space.

That center cost $15 million in 1993, of which the federal government paid two-thirds and Skamania County paid the rest in hopes of boosting its struggling timber-dependent economy.A lodge in the upper Cowlitz River valley would be a year-round resort, serving White Pass skiers and summer hikers and golfers.Snow time for funThe Forest Service's new proposal includes yurts and guided snowmobile rides at Marble Mountain south of the peak. Those are good ideas. But the parking lot there is already so crowded that it's hard to find a space on sunny winter weekends.

The ideal layout would be like the one on the upper Wind River Highway, where snowmobilers and skiers have completely separate areas.Snowplay opportunities along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway are sporadic and the Forest Service hasn't publicized them. Most years, skiers and snowshoers can have a fine outing from the Coldwater Ridge area to higher country to the north. Of course, that's on Weyerhaeuser land, where snowmobiles are prohibited.

A better look at lavaThe terrain just to the west of the crater isn't particularly steep, and a hiking route could be marked there with posts, as it is on the climbing route on the volcano's south flank.If the mountain stays in its current stable eruptive phase, such a hike wouldn't be any riskier than what the Forest Service permits elsewhere. The agency allows climbing on Mount Adams and Mount Hood, which are much steeper.

Five people have died hiking Lava Canyon south of St. Helens, but the trail -- with warning signs -- remains open.Weyerhaeuser landsWeyerhaeuser eventually comes up in discussions of expanding volcano tourism in Cowlitz County, because the company owns so much of the land between I-5 and the peak.One of the ideas that makes the most sense is for the Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources to negotiate easements on Weyerhaeuser roads so people can drive to public land that was often accessible before the company restricted motorized vehicles.

Wait another half-century or two?It's tempting to draw comparisons between Mount St. Helens and other Northwest mountains that have more tourist resources, but may be too soon -- by about 100 years.Yes, Mounts Rainier and Hood have nice lodges on their flanks, and Hood has a couple of ski areas, but those peaks have not had major eruptions in living memory.Nature has a different time schedule than do entrepreneurs. Mount St. Helens is still young, active, fragile, and dangerous at times. Like its recovery, building up tourist development will take time.

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