Should this national monument become a national park?

An Idaho town hopes changing Craters of the Moon to park status will boost its economy.

 

To Rose Bernal, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument lives up to its name in terms of otherworldliness. Geologically, the monument is home to world-renowned volcanic rock features. But it is no barren moonscape — the area boasts as many native animal species as Yellowstone.

Unfortunately, the area’s unique charm has not translated into economic prosperity for the nearby towns dotting central Idaho’s high desert. In recent years, Arco, population 995, has seen an elementary school close and the tax base dwindle as businesses shutter and residents leave for better job opportunities elsewhere. “We’re definitely seeing some hard times here,” says Bernal, who runs a local gas station and serves as a Butte County commissioner. She says 11 empty businesses now sit on the town’s main street.

Hikers approach Sheep Trail Butte in Craters of the Moon National Monument. Area residents are advocating to make the monument a national park, in the hope that it will help local economies.
Craters of the Moon National Monument/Flickr

Seeking an economic boost, Bernal and other local residents are spearheading a movement to change Craters of the Moon from a national monument to a national park in order to coax more visitors to the area. “A lot of people on their way to the Tetons and Yellowstone pass right by Craters and don’t even know it’s there,” says Bernal. The idea is that just by changing the name, tourists and recreators will be more inclined to visit, thereby spending more money with local businesses. Bernal says the groundswell of support for the measure is widespread, with all five counties adjacent to the 750,000-acre monument and preserve favoring the name change.

The reason why Craters might have a chance at the new designation is because it’s not just one singular natural feature, which is what monuments are typically created to protect. Craters has a varied landscape and has grown in acreage over the years, making it a robust ecosystem — which means it’s a strong candidate for national park status.

The rationale is simple enough: Upgrading Craters’ designation to a national park will make it a higher-profile tourist destination. But is economic salvation really as easy as weighing what’s in a name?

Other freshly minted national parks give Bernal and other proponents some reasons for optimism, though the benefits of the designation are hard to pin down.

Since 2003, three other national monuments have been converted into national parks: California’s Pinnacles National Park, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, and South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. Within two years after becoming a park, NPS data shows those places averaged a more-than 7 percent rise in visitation, although year-to-year attendance can be volatile. Other reports indicate that the three new parks have seen an average boost in attendance of 28 percent.

“Did we see a quantum leap in visitation after we became a national park? It’s hard to put your finger on that,” says Fred Bunch, the chief of resources management at Great Sand Dunes National Park, which underwent the conversion from a monument in 2004. Bunch says that visitation rates can be fickle — susceptible to changes in gas prices, drought, weather and other factors. Overall, attendance has increased in the past decade, though he isn’t sure how much of that is due to the new designation.

In 2013 Pinnacles National Park became the most recent monument to attain parkhood. NPS data shows that visitation rates have tapered off since then, but Jan Lemons, the park’s public affairs officer, suggests those numbers could be inaccurate, since she says the park’s campgrounds are now busy on weekends year-round. An added plus to the new designation, she says, is that the neighboring communities have responded well, and are using the park as more of a regional selling point. The Chamber of Commerce in nearby Soledad, for instance, bills the town as “the proud gateway to Pinnacles National Park.”

“The local communities seem more willing to showcase and promote the park,” says Lemons.

But nearby communities don’t always benefit from such a switch. In Saguache County, Colorado, which sits adjacent to Great Sand Dunes National Park but a bit north of the park’s entrance, the business community hasn’t observed a noticeable bump. “I think probably there’s a quite minimal impact over here in Saguache,” says Faith O’Reilly, who serves on two tourism councils in the area. O’Reilly is “pretty much convinced” that gas prices — not park titles — have the biggest influence on visitation to the area.

Back in Arco, Bernal has tempered expectations about Craters of the Moon National Park coming to fruition in the near future. Congress has to pass a bill to make the designation change, which may be difficult in part because of opposition from the Farm Bureau — a national agricultural advocacy organization. The Bureau has expressed concerns over grazing rights on the preserve. But park officials insist that ranchers who currently use some of the preserve for grazing — the BLM co-managed land added to the monument in 2000 — won’t be affected.

Bernal is nervous that the Farm Bureau’s concerns will doom the measure in an election year. Still, she’s holding out hope. “It basically puts a national spotlight on our area that we have never been able to have before. We have a lot of amazing things here but not many people know about them.”

Bryce Gray is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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