California has Yosemite, Montana Yellowstone and Washington Mount Ranier. Every western state has a National Park – except Idaho. But that may change. A group in the small town of Arco is looking to get a nearby National Monument re-designated as Idaho’s first National Park.
When you approach the monument, the jagged and craggy terrain that appears on the side of the highway is like nothing else in the state. On this day, the sprawling fields of black lava rocks are checkered with snow, leaving the landscape looking like a hybrid black-and-white chocolate bar. How do you describe territory that’s so otherworldly it’s called Craters of the Moon? According to the monument’s Chief of Interpretation, Ted Stout, the vowel-heavy Hawaiian language is a good place to start.
Pointing at some of the formations as we walk through a field of cinder cones in the bracing 20-degree air, he notes, “This is classic pahoehoe lava. You can see how it kind of bunched up and created these ropey features that you can see here, as opposed to some of the really rough lava that we’ll see over here which is known as 'a'a.”
Splayed over 54,000 acres, Craters of the Moon is dotted with cinder cones, spatter cones and lava tubes. Since 1924, this strange rocky landscape has been set aside by the government. Stout says the monument was designated by President Calvin Coolidge.
“I don’t think Calvin Coolidge was a big lava fan,” Stout says. “I think he just heard from the folks out here in Idaho and decided to act upon that through the Antiquities Act.”
The 110-year old act allows Presidents to set aside lands for preservation as National Monuments; President Obama has used it more than 20 times.
A short drive east of Craters is the town of Arco. The first thing you notice when pulling into the rural hamlet is a large rock face just behind downtown covered in numbers. Graduating high school classes have painted their year on the formations since the 1920s.
As we sit at one of Arco’s diners, Pickle’s Place, there’s a plate of their signature fried pickles between Butte County Commissioner Rose Bernal, School Board Chairwoman Marie Cummins and myself.
“We’re definitely facing some issues, as are many rural communities in the state of Idaho,” Bernal says.
Bernal left Arco and was in southern California for a few years, but has since moved back to her hometown.
“Our city is losing businesses steady; we’re losing families," Bernal says. "We’re losing people in our school. Our graduating classes are shrinking.”
Cummins agrees, calling Butte County a dying community. “You know,” she says, “from a school board perspective, our graduating classes were in the 40s and now we’re graduating 25. I mean, that’s a huge change in just 10 years.”
Both women are involved in the Change The Name Coalition seeking to have Craters transition from National Monument to National Park. They think the town of around a thousand’s best hope is the added prestige and visibility having a National Park just 18 miles away would bring.
“Right now, Craters sees around 215,000 visitors," Cummins says. We’ve researched probably three other National Monuments that have changed to National Parks within the last 10 years. Those three have all seen an average increase in tourism of about 30 percent. Imagine that many more thousands of people traveling through Arco.”
Proposals to change the name have come and gone several times – the most recent in 2015, but this latest attempt has broad support. Every county in Idaho backs the plan, and, here in Butte County, an advisory vote on the November ballot approved the change by a majority.
Fighting the change is the Idaho Farm Bureau. Spokesman John Thompson says the Bureau is opposed to turning it into a National Park.
"We’re afraid of the risk. Our members don’t trust what the federal government might do.”
The conservative agriculture group is an advocate of state’s rights; their policy book says one of the greatest dangers facing America is the centralization of power in the federal government. Thompson praises the intention of the leadership in Arco seeking to revitalize their town, but, he says, “Our concern is that it has to go through Congress and a lot of things can change in that process.”
Only an act of Congress can establish a National Park. That federal process is what has Thompson and the Farm Bureau spooked.
The main message the campaign to Change the Name has been putting out is that, operationally, the name itself really is all that would change. Craters is already administered by the National Park Service. Should Congress act and re-designate it a National Park, only its visibility and notoriety would change, according public policy professor John Freemuth.
“In the act where they create a national park, unless Congress said—that they say something about uses that’s different than the monument, then no, nothing changes,” says Freemuth, who’s writing a book about the monument with a graduate student.
“They’d probably have more staff,” he says. “They’d have more visitors. Through the Natural History Association, more would be written about Craters.”
Whether the movement to get Craters designated a National Park makes it out of Idaho and lands in Washington, D.C., ranger Ted Stout says his work at the lava fields and cinder cones will remain the same.
“As far as the way that we manage the park, we would still manage it exactly the way that we do now,” he says, standing next to a 15-foot tower of black lava rock. “We would still try to fulfill the mission of the National Park Service, which is to preserve and protect these special places.”
To many who live near the otherworldly rocky landscape, more is at stake than landing Idaho’s first National Park. The people of Arco and Butte County hope that by adding a national park to the map, they can save their region from falling off it.
Correction: In the original version of this story, we reported that the volcanic cones were called "splatter" cones. That is incorrect. The correct term is "spatter" cones.
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