Friday, January 13, 2017

The Hoffstadt Visitor Center Fiasco

Photo: Mt. St. Helens and the Toutle River Valley as seen from Hoffstadt Visitor Center.
The history of the  spectacular region surrounding Mt. St. Helens is a litany of poor management decisions. From crooked land deals that lost us millions of acres of public land, to the stripping of the ancient forests that once blanketed that land, to the inadequate size of Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, to the haphazard development of said monument, and countless other gaffs and disasters, this corner of the Cascades has not been treated well. The hocking of the Hoffstadt Visitor Center is the latest in this long line of poor decisions.

Photo: Hoffstadt Visitor Center
Rewind back to 1996. Cowlitz County apparently had a pile of money (more than 3 million dollars) to blow, and it did so by adding yet another overly expensive visitor center to the newly rebuilt Spirit Lake Highway - itself a monstrous waste of funds. With three visitor centers on the same road, and only a few viewpoints with a handful of trails to serve as actual attractions - whatever possessed Cowlitz County to build a 4th? They must have expected the tourists to come flooding in by the millions! And this was the case - up until the novelty wore off and the memory of the eruption dwindled into the past. There was not enough to keep the hordes coming back year after year - all the money had gone to constructing enormous, nearly identical visitor centers and an overbuilt highway, and not to projects that would have had a long term draw - more hiking trails and public access to more land along the Spirit Lake Highway.

And so visitor numbers dwindled, and along with them the profits, while officials wrung their hands wondering what was the matter, even as the obvious answer stared them in the face. How did they solve it? By reducing funding, by closing things down, by letting things go to rot because they couldn’t spare the cash to take care of their investments. They had the chance to pick things up a few years back when there was a push to make the Monument into a National Park, thus assuring a dramatic increase in visitation, yet the opportunity was thrown away because it was feared that a Park might bring restrictions to pollution from nearby factories (unlikely), and god forbid that we might have to clean up our air!

Photo: Ancient forest across the valley from the Hoffstadt visitor center
This brings us to the present day, and the loss of yet another piece of public property. Rather than pay to maintain and repair the Hoffstadt Visitor Center, Cowlitz County opted instead to sell it for a tiny fraction of its value to private interests, and now plans to use that money for various purposes in other parts of the county. It seems that Spirit Lake Highway and the communities along it are valued only as a literal dumping ground, as evidenced by the County’s other recent decision to build a municipal landfill at the headwaters of Silver Lake. The continued lack of care shown towards the Spirit Lake Highway region is a tragic mistake. The opportunities here for tourism, conservation, and recreation are unparalleled in all of Southwest Washington. This place must not be thrown away.

The money from the sale of the visitor center (a little over a million dollars) should go to acquiring new public land along Spirit Lake Highway, and building new picnic areas and hiking trails there. The first and most obvious choice for preservation is the High Lakes. Sold off to developers years ago, the area is still wild, and the owners are willing to sell it to the public. The county could work with local and regional environmental organizations to acquire this land and return it to its rightful place as a public space. Trails leading to these glittering alpine gems, through high forests, meadows, past spectacular views, and to lofty points and peaks in the area would boost tourism more than any visitor center ever could!

Please, write to the Cowlitz County Commissioners, and ask them to spend the public’s money more wisely than they have in the past, and put it toward securing the High Lakes for the good of the economy, the wildlife that calls it home, and for the enjoyment of future generations.