Monday, November 24, 2008

National Park Service at Mount St. Helens Would be Best

The debate continues to rage in three counties most impacted by our neighborhood volcano. Should the Volcanic Monument continue to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service, or would administration by the National Park Service make any marked difference for the visitors and more importantly, our local economies.

I come at the question from a unique perspective that has fallen on deaf local ears thus far. I have worked 11 summers with the National Park Service. I understand the management culture, and the mindset of the employees themselves. It is an organization that is extremely bureaucratic, but from top to bottom, the service works for the same mission.

Some more photos will be included as time is available... Minnie Peak and Coldwater Peak is classic world class scenery especially in the winter.

In 2004, I came to work for the Forest Service at Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center and Johnston Ridge Observatory at Mount St. Helens. For more than three years, I worked as part of a supervisory team that covered the Monument on the north side of the volcano. Our philosophy was to treat visitors with a very Park Service-like model. It was very successful and despite the Forest Service uniforms, our visitors assumed that Mount St. Helens was a National Park. Like myself, most of our employees had worked in the National Park Service culture and embraced its values.

The problem at Mount St. Helens is that there is a disconnect between the staff on the ground in front of visitors and those that administer the monument from the national and regional level. The Forest Service is torn between its mission of multiple use and this Monument does not fit the standard operating procedure including funding at national, regional and finally district levels as opposed to line item allocations for each property.

The main question should be what will the National Park do for me? It has been well established that the two agencies are heading in different directions (at least under the Bush Administration). While the Forest Service has been cut year after year, to the point of near irrelevancy, the National Park Service actually saw its budget grow this year.

Assuming all or a portion of the Monument became a National Park Service property, and it received its full funding for a resource with its size and visitation, it might be compared to Lassen National Volcanic Park in Northern California. The budget at Lassen was about $4.5 million while St. Helens featured a frugal expenditure of $500,000. During a 2005 study by the National Parks and Conservation Association, Lassen Volcanic’s budget contributed 362 jobs (Part- and fulltime including NPS employees) that generated $11,523,000 of local personal income and brought in $16,436,000 of spending by visitors from outside local areas on lodging, food, transportation, souvenirs, etc. around the park. I might add that Lassen is in a far more remote location, away from major highways and population centers than Mt. St. Helens.

Getting to Coldwater Lake was almost impossibe during the winter of 2006-07 because the Washington Department of Transportation chose to not maintain Highway 504 past MP35.

The National Park Service is a brand name, an icon that is a draw to its own. Surveys in the 1980s found that the goals of many world travelers included “meeting a park ranger”. The U.S. National Park Service is one of the most respected agencies world-wide.

The NPS may also bring with it “exclusive jurisdiction” that would end bizarre cooperation agreements with local agencies as well as the Washington Department of Transportation. The latter is responsible for the management of Highway 504 as well as the closure thereof. Beyond its closed gates, hikers, skiers and those on snow shoes are not allowed to use the route for recreation during the winter for liability reasons. The road from Coldwater Lake to Johnston Ridge has been closed to any recreational use. The Forest Service had a very difficult time keeping access open to recreational areas on the south side of the mountain during the winter of 2006-07. Lack of access goes against the culture of the Forest Service let alone the Park Service. Of course this may be a moot point based on the fact the NPS would probably keep Johnston Ridge open through the winter. One only has to look at Paradise at Mt. Rainier or the Steel Center and Rim Village at Crater Lake National Park to see the effort presented to keep winter ecological stories available to the public.

I also believe that with the additional budget and management would see the value of reopening Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. The resource at Coldwater Ridge tells its own stories about the recovery of the landscape after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. It is a totally different ecological location than the more popular center at Johnston Ridge. The National Park Service understands the value of interpreting differing landscapes even if the majority of the public doesn’t always see that same significance.

Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center was kept open all winter as weather would allow. The public is very interested in the winter ecological story in the blast zone.

Putting trained Park Rangers in front of the public is a high priority for the Park Service. Where the Forest Service systematically cut the number of rangers at places like Ape Cave, Windy Ridge and the visitor centers and attempted to replace them with volunteers over the last three years, The NPS culture places a priority of highly trained and skilled rangers with excellent customer service skills.

Finally, the NPS, would not tolerate the condition of the trails in the Mt. Margaret Backcountry or the roads around the Monument. One of the most special wilderness areas in Southwest Washington is now all but unusable due to lack of access. With both the USFS 26 and 99 roads washed out and trails falling off the side of ridges from lack of maintenance, the Margaret Country went almost unvisited during the summer of 2008. Roads around St. Helens that were damaged during the storms of 2006 are just getting reopened, but The National Park Service worked at breakneck speeds to repair damage at Mt. Rainier. They secured nearly $30 million in emergency funds and were genuinely embarrassed that they had to shut down the park or even parts of it for any length of time.

If all or a portion of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument were transferred to the management of the National Park Service, the culture would change at both the Monument and in the communities around the mountain. Those who use national parks as playgrounds will have new life at Mt. St. Helens with modest improvement in the physical plant, and a more friendly upper management. The only problem local communities would have is how to compete with area major metropolitan areas for residual dollars.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Public Should Ask Many Questions About DNR Land Swap Proposals

The Washington Department of Natural Resources is working to put all of their manageable eggs into a few baskets. The agency is looking to trade about 7,700 acres of Washington Public Lands for about 19,000 acres of land via Plum Creek Timber Company. Another deal with Port Blakely Tree Farms may not be far behind that includes land just west of Winlock and Vader.

A large portion of that trade would come right out of our Western Lewis County back yard, an area already anemic with public lands. Local residents use that land to ride horseback, hunt and explore, especially in these lean times where driving to the east county for such play becomes a major financial decision.

There are many questions besides the emotional loss of publicly owned land in Lewis County. First off, why would Plum Creek and Port Blakely trade so much land for so little. We are talking about 19,000 acres which has had “low to moderate harvest over the last five years” according to Robin L. Keegan, a media contact for Plum Creek Timber Company. One can only surmise that the value of the resources on the 7,700 acres of DNR land make up for the difference. What is the condition of the land the Citizens of Washington will gain? Are we now in the business of taking harvested land and rehabilitating it?

The second question that comes to mind is why the Lake Creek holdings just west of Winlock? The Department of Natural Resources states that it wants to have its holdings centralized for more efficient management. Are there and thoughts about the people who use those lands?

Currently, two proposed land swaps effect Lewis County residents. The largest would swap 7,700 acres (including 2,155 from Lewis County) for 19,000 acres in King County’s Green River Watershed. The area also happens to be the City of Tacoma’s watershed. That means more public land for King County and less for Lewis. A smaller deal with Port Blakely would exchange 4,000 acres of DNR and Trust lands for an unspecified amount of acreage in eastern Gray’s Harbor County that borders the Capital Forest. Our neighboring Lake Creek area is in the proposed Port Blakely swap.

To complicate the matter further, many of the lands included in these proposed swaps are trust lands owned by Lewis County dating back to the 1930s and are managed by the DNR. Lewis County Commissioners are watching closely as those lands contribute anywhere from $3 million to $16 million to local coffers , but DNR insists they have the final say. Is DNR swapping lands owned by Lewis County?

While DNR officials intend to establish alternative trust lands within the county, it would be dealt for on an “equal value basis” not necessarily an equal amount of acreage.

The deals are complicated and should not be taken and approved at face value. Both sides state repeatedly that they intend to make their lands easier to manage through consolidation. Plum Creek and Port Blakely answer to their stockholders in a simple fashion. The role of the DNR is not quite so clear, but they should be answering all of the interests of its stakeholders.

Meetings regarding these proposals will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 6:00pm, at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis. A public input meeting on the Port Blakely exchange will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 10 at the Lewis County Law and Justice Center in Chehalis.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Travel the Northwest on AMTRAK

For those of you that know me, you will probably find it surprising to know that I never had the chance to ride the AMTARK “Cascade” service that run between Eugene and Seattle. At one time, I was a regular. I knew staff and made friends on board. I rode AMTRAK weekly from Klamath Falls to Eugene as an interpreter for Klamath County Tourism and then returned that same night on the southbound #11. Since we moved to Southwest Washington in 2003, we have found several scenarios that would find us on one of the reliable commuter trains. We tried to go to a Mariner game, we tried just go to Seattle for the day or to visit our family in Eugene. Budget and logistics are always an issue but last weekend, it all finally fell together.

The famous Southern Pacific clocktower at Portland's Union Station gives a less than subtle message about how to travel.

Laurie and Jared went to Eugene to be with her family but I had a high school football game to cover on Friday night and deadlines to meet on Saturday. That left Kyle and myself free to take a train to Eugene on Saturday evening. I worked through the website which didn’t even give me the option of going south on AMTRAK #11 that comes through in the early afternoon. Instead, I needed something in the early evening so AMTRAK train #507 was the ticket!

The snack car is usually right behind "Coach #3", therefore, if you are looking for peace and quiet in the walkways, try to sit in Caoch #5.

For the non-train types lurking out there, in general, AMTRAK in the northwest is very reliable. Check during winter storms, but all but one of the trains are usually on time between Eugene and Seattle. Train #14, the northbound Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle is typically an hour to three down by the time it reaches Eugene. This says more about the congestion in California and the crossing of the Cascades east of Eugene. The rest are almost like clockwork.

The total cost for us was $45 ($30 for me and $15 for that drag along son of mine that is still considered a youth by Amtrak’s definition) for a trip from Kelso to Eugene. The train was right on time and was very comfortable to ride. Perhaps “leg-room” may be an issue, but I suspect that most folks don’t ride long enough for it to be a real issue.

AMTRAK Cascade service features coaches with comfortable seats and electric outlets for your gadget needs. We had heard wireless internet was available, but could never pull it up on Kyle's laptop.

From Kelso to Eugene on the timetable is just over 4 hours. It dawned on me driving home Sunday night that it typically takes 3.5 hours to drive if traffic in Portland is perfect. The 30 minute stop in Portland gives you a chance to catch some fresh air (and for me to take a few photos), but I found myself muttering without this stop, it would make the train real competitive with Interstate 5.

AMTRAK train #508 is ready for departure north out of Portland on Saturday night.

Of course, I always tell people that ask about riding the train to not be in a hurry. Enjoy the chance to take what is for most Americans a unique way to travel.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fall Beauty Offers Invitation for Learning

In case you had your eyes closed the last few weeks, we had a beautiful fall. Brilliant colors were produced over the usual drab shades ranging from brown to near rust. The difference this year was something we don’t often see in October. Two weeks of perfectly timed, clear days and cold nights.

Some Big Leaf Maples were on solid display right here in Downtown Winlock.

That is the recipe for the kind of colors that we saw in October and are now watching as the leaves fall to the ground in the breezes and rain of the first fall storms.

The big star this year is clearly the Big Leaf Maple. The stretch of flawless fall weather occurred perfectly as the graceful trees began to shut down for the dark, winter season ahead. Granted, Big Leak Maple usually has a handsome color show, but this year it was particularly brilliant!

This is a relatively dull scene on the North Fork Toutle River.

The leaves of deciduous trees change colors due to a number of environmental factors. During the summer months, the leaf is green because the tree is manufacturing color chlorophyll through the process of photosynthesis. When the daylight wanes, and days become subtly shorter, photosynthesis begins to shut down. The cells at the confluence of the leaf start to divide and block the fluid and moisture from the roots of the tree. Once the food supply is cut off, the underlying tones of yellow and orange appear. This begins to reveal the natural pigments of the leaf and to spectators like us, we view this as the “fall color” period.

Chemicals often determine the colors a tree will display. Many of our local trees simply turn brown due to high percentage of tannins in the leaves. Carotenoids are one of the main chemicals in the leaves of the Big Leaf Maple and the Vine Maple. This year however, a more dominant Xanthophyll, an oxidized derivative of carotene, helped our Big Leaf Maples as well as a variety of other trees show brilliant gold color instead of the usual brownish-orange.

This Vine Maple just east of Toledo is showing its colors complete with the carotenoid chemicals that give the reds and oranges. These are the same chemicals that you would find in carrots.

One also should be asking why the Vine Maple here in Western Washington is not nearly as vibrant as its cousins in the mountains to the east. The answer is also weather. In the lower drainages of the Cowlitz, we don’t see nearly as much sunshine as most locations east of say, Morton. This is the same reason that makes New England famous for its fall color displays and Europe, which is covered with deciduous forests has a less than dynamic show. New England typically offers clear, cool weather in October while Europe has a persistent cloud cover during the fall months.

The Cottonwood, just to the right of the big Douglas Fir has an easier ability to show Xanthophyll, the chemical that allows us to see more of the yellow and gold pigments after the tree stops producing chlorophyll.

Regardless, how much we enjoyed our fall colors this year, we should always be asking what are the reasons for the beauty.
eXTReMe Tracker