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Study Touts Economic Benefits of Mount St. Helens "National Park"


Mount St. Helens: An economic engine as a national park?

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."

And, of course, let's not forget the current efforts to see Golden Gate National Recreation Area renamed "Golden Gate National Parks."

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."

"For example, if you can convert Cuyahoga National Recreation Area and Great Sand Dunes National Monument to national parks, why not Dinosaur (National Monument)?" he asks.

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."

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As we've discovered, to a large degree the names applied to NPS (and handful of USFS and BLM) units have no reliable definitions. The distinction, in this case, between a National Volcanic Monument and a National Park is entirely arbitrary. (See Speaker Pelosi's absurd Golden Gate National Parks kick.) I wish that it were not so, but there it is.

$443,000 in new visitor spending? Spread across 150,000 residents in three counties? A $3 per capita argument is pretty weak. If you really want to make an economic impact in those counties, start loosening up logging regulations.

I would oppose NP status for 2 reasons:

1) We need to adequately fund the NP's we already have.

2) Under the current USFS stewardship, the park is very hands on. One can explore the Ape Cave to one's heart's content, for instance. There is no doubt in my mind that NP status would bring about unnecessary restrictions on human activity.

I agree with Oregon Dude (not verified)
I say Bah! to the surrounding communities and business's, local and federal governments and corporations who view Our Wilderness, National Monuments and Parks as a way to make a quick buck, as nothing more than a commodity.

From Wikipedia:

"National monuments receive less funding and afford fewer protections to wildlife than national parks.
Another difference between a national monument and national park is the amount of diversity in what is being protected; national monuments aim to preserve at least one unique resource but do not have the amount of diversity of a national park (which are supposed to protect a host of unique features). However areas within and extending beyond, national parks, monuments or even national forests can be part of wilderness areas, which have an even greater degree of protection than a national park would alone, although wilderness areas managed by the United States Department of Agriculture's United States Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management often allow hunting."

Now if congress were to designate the whole monument as the "Mount St. Helens Wilderness" I would be very happy.

Why is it that the creation of a new national park area is always initially touted for the positive economic impacts it would bring, yet when these factors are brought up in critical decision making, such as the recent brouhahas in Yellowstone and Cape Hatteras can attest to, park managers and park supporters alike look upon the "economically impacted" local businesses as little more than selfish vampires wishing to suck freely on the flesh of the sacred wilderness?

I wish park promoters would stop bringing up the economic aspects because it is something that they eventually abhor once the park is created and soon conveniently forget that it was a factor that they touted in the beginning when they were looking for support in establishing their preserve. Let the chips fall where they may and create parks with a serious set of definable criteria and let the free market adjust to and serve the needs and wants of consumers as it sees fit.

Random Walker: Yes, NPS national monuments receive about 20% of the yearly operational funding that national parks receive. Are there possible rational explanations for this? Is visitation higher in national parks than monuments? Do national parks generally have more staff members than national monuments? Is there generally more infrastructure in national parks than monuments? Please also consider that non-national park designations (such as national historical sites, national recreation areas, and so on) collectively receive almost twice the annual operating funds that national parks do. What does this say? I'm not sure. I'm not sure any of these statements have any real significance.

I will dispute the Wikipedia claim that there is more "diversity" of what is being protected in a national park than in a national monument. Take a look at Lava Beds National Monument. Coyotes, bald eagle roosts, pictographs, petroglyphs, endangered bats, battlefields, caves, cinder cones, and on and on. I also dispute that wildlife receives a lower degree of protection in national monuments. This might be true in the few monuments outside the purview of the NPS, but this is the exception, not the rule.

As for designating Mt. St. Helens a wilderness, I've advanced on these pages that the area should be left to recover on its own, and I think we'd agree on this. Call it laizze faire preservation. A leave-it-alone area. More than wilderness, though. Something new in name and spirit.

Kurt wonders "how much weight economics should be given when decisions are made on additions to the National Park System." I don't think the establishment of national parks should be used as an economic stimulus of local economies as this leads to the tendency to dole political pork; however, we should consider the economics of how parks will be funded and whether or not they are economically sustainable when considering whether or not to add them to the system. Had the NPS looked honestly at these issues, sites like Steamtown, regardless of their historical integrity, would not have been created.

Unless my math skills have gone the way of the dodo bird, the economic stimulus amounts to just over $36 dollars per "extra" visitor, but nowhere does the study state whether the figure mentioned is an annual, monthly, weekly or daily figure. Since that little detail was omitted, I have to operate under the inference that we're speaking in terms of annually, which in other words means little or no impact at all in the grand scheme of things. Certainly not enough of a "windfall" to expand the civil payroll. Probably not even enough to account for the extra costs to be absorbed by the existing infrastructure to justify the "Oh boy, throngs of people are coming!" attitude. This windfall to the local community (ies) would be without a single dollar spent on new amenities or infrastructure, which presumably means neither by the locales to benefit or by the NPS, who can ill afford said improvements anyway, which is all well and good. The only way I can see this Christmas bonus being distributed is amongst the existing gas stations, Motel 6's and God awful fast-food franchises, with emphasis being overly concentrated on the junk food sector. So good for them, I guess, and the new temporary staff that they employ to adjust to the new Boom Times. However, when the current economy returns to a more even keel, gas prices rise to the $4/gal level that Big Oil now knows stupid American consumers will tolerate, and trekking off the beaten path isn't in the majority of people's itineraries, and the necessary lay-offs come rollin' down the mountain, and all you're left with is what existed in the pre-designation era, how does the new title benefit the local economy?

I firmly believe that visitation to the area, and in particular the star of the show, happens because of the recent history still burned into many people's minds regarding the cataclysm, who are still trying to grasp the scope of the event, which is now getting my blurred by the year and not because in any way, shape or form due to the moniker bestowed upon the local geography. Call me ignorant, but I wouldn't place one inch of credibility in the study mentioned in the article about how immediately the public is drawn to a "new" park. I'm absolutely certain that the majority of the increase is calculated on a sliding scale averaged over time, and is thereby flawed in its presentation as a viable economic tool for development, as you can't simply turn on a spigot and viola, visitors appear from nowhere. For instance, when and where are previous comparable sample systems that are available for comparison? How did the national economy fare at the time, not just when the change was made but immediately prior to and post modification to the park's renaming? What were other local draws in the area that might have assisted by functioning as a tourist magnet? How long, if ever, did it take for the numbers to ascend to the promised levels? What was the trend over time? Exactly what does the number 11K represent in terms of an increase? Is an extra 11K the equivalent to a 500% increase or a 1% increase? And while no new "infrastructure" will be required, the locals better figure out just who is going to clean up after these additional visitors, and who might be responsible for shouldering the burden for those costs, along with the multitude of other unwanted costs to the local environment and existing infrastructure. The annual supplement of thirty six and change per head ain't gonna go too far, folks.

Now for the really obvious but at once stupid question that begs to be asked.......

If National Park status is a slam dunk in bolstering every little local economy in the immediate geography surrounding whatever tract of land you prefer to consider, then why don't we take ALL public lands, be they BLM, National Forests, state parks, recreation areas, preserves, monuments, whatever, and redesignate the entirety as new NPS units? Wouldn't the overall economic climate across the nation benefit? If all it takes to jump-start the rural economy is a new plaque over the entrance and a broad brim at the door that seems pretty much a no-brainer, even for the dopes at the DOI. And if the above study is to be taken at face value, then A=B and everybody reaps an immediate economic benefit. Couldn't the current economy be instantaneously rescued from the doldrums with the simple wave of the DOI wand? What's wrong with this picture?

Lots of good comment have been made above.

As to Kurt's question early in the piece about how much weight economics should be given when decisions are made on additions to the National Park System, my vote would be "none" - a proposed site should be able to stand on its own merits in determining if it's of "national park" caliber. Once that decision has been made, the possibility of local economic benefits can certainly be a big factor in the political arena when it comes to gaining support for worthy new areas.

As one poster mentioned above, a more pertinent economic question is whether the dollars will be available to properly manage any new areas for the system - or will the politicos simply continue the practice of establishing new sites, and then spreading existing inadequate budgets even thinner to cover the additions.

There is no doubt in my mind that the historical, geological, and ecological significance of Mt. St. Helens makes it worthy of full national park status. The economic benefit to local communities due to enhanced tourism is an obvious side-effect, but it should not be the primary reason to consider changing the status of and administrative responsibility for this most important volcanic landscape.

Having said this, I must ask, is there a single National Park, including Yellowstone, where the economic benefits of enhanced tourism was not a major factor that was considered by Congress prior to establishing an Act creating the park?

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

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