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Thursday, October 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Ron Judd

St. Helens up for bids, as park fees jump by half

Seattle Times staff columnist

The true measure of a society, the saying goes, is the way it treats its weakest members.

There's some truth in that. And for a lot of us, the rule extends to the natural world: You can tell a lot about a nation by the way it treats its wild places — not only the reverence, or lack thereof, with which they are regarded, but the degree to which people are encouraged to access them.

All of this came to mind recently with the alarming news that Your Federal Government, in its infinite, cash-starved wisdom, has essentially put the entire visitor experience at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument up for sale to the highest bidder.

It's true.

The Gifford-Pinchot National Forest, stuck with a set of glitzy volcano visitor centers it claims it can no longer afford to operate, recently put out the welcome mat for private investors. Ideas being floated include helicopter tours, overnight RV camping, boat rentals and the like, although the feds likely would frown upon any mega-scale development, such as resorts.

The back story: User fees at the Monument haven't come close to meeting visitor-center operating costs — especially during a time when Forest Service income from timber sales and dwindling D.C. allotments have been slashed.

Solution? Board the places up and turn off the lights. Or call in the Imagineers, or their outdoor-recreation look-alikes.

You can already imagine the grand corporate-sponsor opportunities here: Step right up, folks, to the Ex-Lax Volcanic Eruption Theater.

It all seems too silly to be true. But it is. And, for the record, a few voices have been howling about this possibility for a decade now. Chief among them is Scott Silver, a strident opponent of user fees on federal lands who runs Wild Wilderness (www.wildwilderness.org) in Bend, Ore.

For years, Silver, while mobilizing opposition — effectively, at times — to the establishment of permanent user fees on public lands, has been warning of a greater tsunami on the horizon: the total privatization of our nation's wild places — the onslaught of "industrial wreckreation."

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A confession: Ten years ago, Silver seemed a bit over the top, at least on this issue. Surely, at some point, we thought, Joe Snowshoer of Seattle and Mary Mountain Biker of Jackson Hole would tire of the rising fees and corporate sliming of their public lands, get on the horn and spew venom at their congressional reps, putting an end to this silliness.

It hasn't happened. And if the past decade of acquiescence serves as an indicator, it's not likely to.

You could argue, logically, that St. Helens is an exception: that its managers simply overbuilt in a remote area where operating costs are high and revenue opportunities are few. You could still hold out hope that the public will not stand for turning Yellowstone, Glacier, Rainier, Denali and the like over to Disney.

But everywhere you look, the trend is toward making our most cherished wild places more costly and exclusive. Even as the feds mulled selling out the local volcano in recent weeks, major entrance-fee boosts were quietly proposed at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks.

In 2006, it likely will cost $15 to drive your car into either park — up from the current fee of $10. The National Park Service justifies this egregious, 50-percent increase thusly: It's been nine years since the last one.

Well, so what? It seems pretty safe to say that over those same nine years, the household purchasing power of middle-class America — if there is still such a thing — has gone nowhere but down, leaving less and less money for frivolities like resetting one's personal inner compass by getting out into nature.

Ten bucks was tough to swallow. Fifteen is over the top. For many, the increasingly onerous fee — coupled with the doubling in the cost of gas to get there and back — relegates a fresh-air field day to the "Luxury Item" category.

As in, expendable. That's tragic. And it leads us right back to where we began. What does this say about us as a nation?

Nothing very good.

We used to give a little smile and nod toward exuberant folks like Scott Silver when they issued their sky-is-falling alerts about the corporate takeover of the backcountry. We're not doing it anymore.

It's tough to argue with Silver's conclusion in a recent communiqué about the St. Helens debacle:

"We are dealing with the Corporate Takeover of Everything. Somewhere a line must be drawn in the sand. I wonder, how much more must be lost before the fight is truly joined?"

More than ever, it's a fair question.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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