Butte commissioner builds grassroots coalition to make Craters of the Moon nation’s 60th national park

Like a modern-day Robert Limbert, Rose Bernal wants the world to see the wonders and weirdness of Craters of the Moon.

Bernal, owner of the Bargain Barn gas station in Arco, ran for Butte County commissioner and won on a platform of business development, seeking to keep her home town from dying the death of many rural communities. Voters picked her over an incumbent and a candidate who called spending on business development a waste of taxpayer money.

“Two Gun” Bob Limbert was the taxidermist, guide, trick-shooter and roper whose stories and photos about his Craters of the Moon expeditions in the Idaho Statesman and later the National Geographic convinced President Calvin Coolidge to proclaim it a national monument in 1924.

Bernal’s first act as commissioner was to begin a grassroots campaign to upgrade Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve to a national park. The commission passed a resolution in support and she got commitments from surrounding counties to do the same. Blaine County said it wanted her to provide public education first, so Thursday she will be in Carey explaining her vision.

“When you turn a monument into a park it brings in 28 percent more people,” Bernal said. “I think we would get a lot more than that because we’re so close to Yellowstone and, already, many of the Craters visitors are on their way to Yellowstone and stop by only by accident.”

Bernal’s vision is not just about Arco. She’s gotten broad support by promoting the idea of turning the vast Central Idaho drive-through country into a destination, featuring scenic wonders from Salmon to Shoshone.

“You get a ton of advertising when you are national park compared to a national monument,” Bernal said. “It puts a national spotlight on Craters of the Moon and our area.”

Idahoans can get a feel for the Idaho potential by looking at Utah’s current “Mighty Five” campaign for its southern Utah national parks. Bernal wants to change the name to Craters of the Moon National Park and Preserve but keep the management the same.

Craters is a great resource to put at the center of a promotion of Idaho scenic wonders. Eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago created the lava flows that make up Craters.

In the proposed national park, there is North Crater Flow with its distinctive monoliths rising from the young lava. The Devil’s Orchard lava towers rise from the cinders. Inferno Cone, a great example of a cinder cone formed by the volcanic eruptions 2,000 years ago, offers a great view of the entire area.

Spatter Cones, Tree Molds and the lava tubes formed in the cooling process include Dewdrop, Boy Scout, Beauty and Indian Tunnels will make it the national park known for its weirdness.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to expand the original Craters of the Moon monument from 54,000 acres to 753,000 acres. Only the original 54,000 acres would form the national park.

In 1970, 43,000 of those acres were designated as the National Park Service’s first-ever wilderness area. That’s a history that should give preservationists reason to join Bernal’s campaign.

Already the Idaho Legislature appears ready to get on board. Rep. Merrill Beyeler, the Leadore Republican who represents Butte County, has written a resolution that has wide bipartisan support from Republicans like Rep. Paul Shepherd and Democrats like Mat Erpelding of Boise. It passed the Senate Wednesday.

Bernal sold real estate in Boise during the boom of the 1990s. When that waned, she returned to her hometown to invest in its future. She bought the gas station and convenience store and has since started a heating-and-air conditioning business. Her husband, Armando, is a deputy sheriff.

Arco has not flourished over the past 30 years, with the promise of more development from the nearby Idaho National Laboratory largely unrealized. But it holds on to the basic services that keep a small town together: good schools, a remarkably healthy Lost River Medical Center and a retail center.

Tourism alone won’t lead Arco out of its doldrums, Bernal said. But it will bring volume to boost the businesses, the medical center and the schools, which could bring other opportunities.

“A lot of rural areas are dying,” Bernal said. “If we’re going to save ourselves, we’re the ones who are going to have to do that.”

The wildflowers are just beginning to bloom in the cinders of Craters, marking the beginning of the best season to see this natural wonder. Bernal is hoping the vision of her and her fellow park promoter Helen Merrill, an Arco chiropractor, blooms into the 60th national park and a flowering future for Arco.

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