In March, just as tourism-oriented businesses around Mount St. Helens started ramping up for 20th anniversary crowds, the Forest Service dropped a bombshell: It didn't have enough money to open one of the three big visitors centers at the National Volcanic Monument.
The $7 million Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake, five miles east of Castle Rock, would remain closed throughout the anniversary year, Forest Service officials said.
The announcement caused a storm of protest - in Cowlitz County, where businesses feared a loss of tourism revenue - as well as in Congress.
Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. Brian Baird angrily complained to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and, a week later, Dombeck announced the center would open after all.
On May 1, the center was once again open for business.
The crisis drew attention to a situation that is far from resolved.
"Forest Service budgets have been coming down because we're not cutting as much timber," said Linda Turner, a spokeswoman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The monument received just $750,000 from Congress last year, compared with $2.7 million in 1994.
To help deal with budget shortfalls, Congress created the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program in 1996, Turner said, which let Mount St. Helens, along with 100 other federally managed recreation sites, charge fees and keep 80 percent of the proceeds.
The fee system worked well at the monument in 1997, Turner said, but because of bad weather and lower fees, they came up short in 1998 and 1999.
Total fee revenue dropped from $2.3 million in 1998 to $1.4 million last year, according to Forest Service figures.
The Silver Lake center will stay open this summer, but beyond that, its future is uncertain. The Forest Service is looking into the option of privatizing operations, Turner said, possibly through special-use permits and concessionaires.
Rep. Baird says the answer is more federal funding.
In a letter to the heads of the Forest Service and Agriculture Department last month, Baird said, "We shouldn't be cutting back on services to this wonderful national treasure, especially in this significant anniversary year."
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SIDEBAR: Amazing numbers
Estimated number of people who visited Mount St. Helens last year.
Number of people who visited Mount Rainier.
Number of people who climbed Mount St. Helens last year.
Cost of three federal visitor centers at the mountain.
Miles of roads destroyed in the eruption.
Miles of new roads built since the eruption.
Percentage of visitors to Mount St. Helens from other countries.
Average amount spent per day by each international tourist.
Price of a Blast Burger at the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center.
Originally published on May 16, 2000.