Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A crime against nature

Mount St. Helens open to bids
Budget officials hope commercial uses, such as helicopter tours, will make up for falling aid at the volcano

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A visit to Mount St. Helens may soon offer more than a steaming volcano. Think commercial helicopter tours, snowmobile and mountain bike rentals, yurt camps, vacation cabins and mobile snack carts at scenic viewpoints.

The U.S. Forest Service is entertaining bids for those and other privately run operations at the national volcanic monument. The goal is twofold: Offer new recreation options and, officials hope, bring in enough money to make up for declining federal support.

Commercial operations at the 110,000-acre monument surrounding the volcano have mostly been limited to cafeterias and gift shops tucked into visitor centers and a few climbing guides.

Now, a prospectus issued by the Forest Service opens the door to the largely undeveloped monument set aside by Congress in 1982. It seeks private bids to run the government visitor centers, plus a range of possible new offerings, such as guided hikes for a fee, construction of tourist cabins and boat rentals on Coldwater Lake.

One of the possibilities would convert more than half the space devoted to explanatory displays and exhibits at Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center to commercial uses such as gift sales.

A goal is for private companies to pick up more of the tab for maintaining deteriorating buildings, said Steve Nelson, an outdoor recreation planner at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which oversees the monument. The fees they pay the government also would go toward upkeep of the monument.

The situation reflects the dismal budget outlook at Mount St. Helens, a kind of financial orphan within the federal government, and an increasingly controversial push to substitute private enterprise for government agencies on public lands.

Years of budget shortfalls have left the monument with a maintenance backlog of about $13.4 million, according to a 2003 total. Managers can scarcely afford to fix leaky roofs, replace outdated exhibits and keep movies at visitor centers running.

Its annual funding is about half of what officials estimate they need to pay for a full range of services, from clean bathrooms to geological talks. Officials hope their embrace of the private sector will help bring in money in other ways.

"If you have someone else operating the facility, and if they're cleaning the toilet instead of the Forest Service cleaning the toilet, that's a reduced cost to the Forest Service," Nelson said.

But he said officials will not let private proposals push commercial development too far. "We're very conscious of all that, and we share that concern," he said.

The government is seeking bids on a series of permits for private companies to assume existing operations, such as visitor centers and restaurants, in different sections of the monument. The contracts may be worth millions -- gift and food sales at Coldwater Ridge brought in more than $2 million in the past three years.

Companies can propose taking over all or part of the visitor center operations, although Nelson said he expects the Forest Service to maintain some presence. The companies could charge their own fees in addition to fees charged by the government, he said.

As part of the permits to take effect next fall, companies also can propose commercial activities not offered now.

Officials said anything would be considered as long as it matches the goals of the monument. Congress directed the Forest Service to protect the volcanic landscape after Mount St. Helens' deadly 1980 explosion and provide for public recreation.

Among the private activities the Forest Service suggests may be reasonable:

Helicopter tours taking off from a helipad near the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the visitor center closest to the volcano's crater, or parking lots at Coldwater Ridge.

Overnight yurt camps or rustic cabins at places such as Coldwater Ridge, the Marble Mountain SnoPark or Bear Meadow north of the volcano.

Mobile snack and gift stands that could be set up at scenic overlooks, picnic areas, trailheads or other popular sites such as Windy Ridge, a major viewpoint.

Winter snowmobile rentals or snowcoach tours on existing roads. Private snowmobile use is currently allowed in parts of the monument.

Fee parking for recreational vehicles in parking lots at Coldwater Ridge, Johnston Ridge and other sites.

Conversion of the Forest Service's Pine Creek Work Center near Cougar Reservoir south of the volcano, now used to house government employees, to a private RV park, campground or resort.

Visitors often ask for options to spend the night in the monument, Nelson said. "People say, 'There's no place for me to stay when I go up there,' " he said.

Most national monuments are managed by the National Park Service, with their own dedicated budgets provided by Congress. Mount St. Helens is one of only a few monuments overseen by the Forest Service, with a budget that depends on money trickling down through the agency from Washington, D.C.

Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness, a Bend group opposed to privatization of public lands, said Congress guaranteed the monument's financial failure by constructing expensive visitor centers with no mechanism to pay for them over the long term.

"The next solution is to call in the private sector," he said. The new prospectus for commercial activities allows almost "any possibility."

"This is a megatransformation," he said. "I just hope people don't allow the slip to take place without realizing what is changing."
More discussion of this atrocity.


At 1/16/2006 4:05 PM, Blogger CODYLDHU said...

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