A growing coalition in south central Idaho has a lofty goal, turning Craters of the Moon National Monument into Idaho's first National Park.
For the town of Arco, Idaho, having Craters of the Moon National Monument is a critical part of the economy. From gas stations to restaurants and hotels, the area relies on travelers who are checking out the vast volcanic landscape, often on their way to Yellowstone National Park.
The park versus monument distinction is much more than namesake. Supporters say it’s the difference of millions of dollars for the local economy and an important step for the future Idaho tourism.
Idaho is the only state in the west that doesn't have a national park, and some local residents are hoping to change that.
“We are at a vital point right now. Either we stand up and make ourselves viable and strong again, or we probably will end up ceasing to exist,” Butte County commissioner Rose Bernal explained regarding the effort to have Craters of The Moon turned into a national park.
With its proximity to the Idaho National Laboratory, Arco was once touted as an energy based growing community of the future. Today, folks in Arco are still waiting for the promise of a better tomorrow.
"Rural communities are suffering and we are suffering the same fate," said Bernal. "Were dependent on farms. The farms are all conglomerate, they are not huge employers anymore."
Vacant building are a common sight on Arco's main drag, locals say that turning craters of the moon into Idaho's first National Park, would help keep the town on the map.
“I know there's been a long time of discussion in and around craters particularly out of Arco that it would draw more public to the area if it were a national park. They were talking about it when I was there in 1994. They're still talking about it. In 2016,” former Craters of the Moon Superintendent and current National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis explained.
The National Park Service formal position on the issue is very clear, no position.
Rose Bernal doesn’t get discouraged from the on-again and off-again conversations about the park. In fact, Bernal has been working harder than ever to gain political support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
A proposal to gather support at the Idaho Legislature has presented the 2015 session but ultimately died during the session.
“We took it to the state house. And we got it through the Senate unanimously, but it snagged up in the House because the speaker felt like it was too fast,” Rose said.
When asked why she believed the support didn’t gain traction, Rose said she believed that a lobby group ultimately had the last say.
“Idaho Farm Bureau is very powerful in the state of Idaho,” said Rose. “When they decide that they don't like something whether it's for a good reason or a bad reason, it really has a hard time getting put through.”
When 6 On Your Side reached out to the Idaho Farm Bureau, spokesman John Thompson explained that the group wanted to look at the language of the bill that was presented.
“It came up once, we had not seen it before, and so we asked for some time to assess and that's why that legislation was tabled,” Thompson said. “We need to assess further, ‘is this going to harm agriculture? Is there a chance it can?’ It may not you know, we may not oppose the bill when it comes.”
Thompson then furthered that if the park would harm Idaho agriculture, then the Farm Bureau could not get behind it.
The concern from the IFB is centered on whether the federal government could increase regulations around the area which could include limiting off-road vehicle use. Although grazing and hunting has been prohibited at the monument for the last 92 years, the preserve surrounding the area does not.
A concern that current Craters of the Moon superintendent Wade Vagias argued may not be true.
“There would be no managerial changes,” Vagias said. “The only change would be the sign.”
“Our proposal would not affect their grazing rights it would just affect this area right here. The actual monument itself, not the preserve,” Rose explained to 6 On Your Side.
Idaho gets nearly $29,000,000 in economic benefits from its National Park sites including Craters of the Moon.
“Craters of the Moon contributes about $8.4 million to the local economy including Blaine and Butte Counties annually,” Vagias said. “Those are real contributions of this place to the local economy. We are proud to be a contributing member of the local economy.”
Although the sum of $29,000,000 sounds impressive, when you compare it to every other state in the west with a National Park, Idaho ranks low on the list.
Anchored by Glacier National Park, Montana sees nearly $480,000,000 from park tourism.
Wyoming, which hosts both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, rakes in more than $890,000,000.
Utah’s five national parks pulls in $844,200,000. Colorado pulls in $450,400,000. Washington State receives $470,100,000. Oregon $81,400,000. California pulls in a whopping $1,774,400,000. New Mexico $97,500,000.
Of course, no one can say with absolute certainty millions of tourism dollars would start flowing freely in the Gem State if craters became a National Park, But Rose argues that the monument’s location to Yellowstone is a win-win for travelers.
“There’s no doubt. That the National Park name does draw more visitors,” National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said.
Supporters of making Craters of the Moon Idaho's first national park say the dollars are in details, the details are in the name, and the name should be National Park.