At Mount St. Helens fees go dangerously high

  • VOLCANIC: Visitors at Johnston Ridge Observatory

    Jim Quiring/USFS

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

At Mount St. Helens National Monument in Washington state, the money problems began two years ago, when officials had to close the Silver Lake Visitors' Center four days a week. The funds just weren't there to keep the center open full time.

Things got worse.

The Forest Service shifted staff to the short-handed Coldwater Ridge Observatory, nearer the volcano. But by last year, with a shortfall of $2.5 million, it was clear that visitors' services would shut down entirely unless the agency could find more money. Meanwhile, officials realized that since 1994, visitation had shot up 230 percent.

In response, says spokesman Tom Knappenberger, the agency drew up a proposal for a user-fee program and tested it on the commissioners of surrounding Cowlitz County, and at town meetings.

"We arrived at an entrance fee of $8 a head as necessary to keep the place running," says Knappenberger. With feedback from residents and local government, the agency agreed to let children under age 15 in for free, while citizens over age 62 pay half price.

The Forest Service also fund raised for construction projects. Officials lobbied the county for money to construct the Coldwater Observatory and another on Johnston Ridge, both of which opened this year. The total cost of building both was around $21 million, and the state bowed to a request from the county commissioners and paid almost half. The other half came not from user fees, but from the general agency budget.

Most visitors don't seem to mind the entrance charge, but some groups complain about other fees at the monument. Anyone who wants to climb the volcano must make a reservation and pay for a $15 a day pass, which some feel is unfair and dangerous.

Brooke Drury of The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based climbing and hiking club, says since the fee is only for a day, this might push a climber to get to the top no matter what the weather.

The club is concerned enough about user fees in general that it is sponsoring a conference on the issue, Nov. 1, at the store run by REI, Recreational Equipment Inc., in Seattle.

Says Drury, "We support a more equitable and broad-based fee system."

Forest Service officials say the fees are not inflexible and some changes may be necessary. "The bottom line is this is a pilot program," says Tom Knappenberger, "and the whole point of a pilot is to see what works and what doesn't."

For more information call The Mountaineers at 206/284-6310 or the Forest Service at 360/891-5005.

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