The Shell station shut down recently. Same with the drive-thru restaurant. Wells Fargo will close this month, and nearby storefronts sit mostly vacant.
This steadily shrinking town of 900 undoubtedly has seen better days. Like so many other small Idaho communities, it has suffered from a weak rural economy and residents fleeing in search of jobs in more urban areas such as Idaho Falls.
But in Arco last year, a tightly knit group of residents hatched a plan they say could turn things around. Led by Rose Bernal, a Butte County commissioner and gas station owner, and Helen Merrill, a chiropractor, the group’s proposal is simple: Change Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve — a 15-minute drive outside town — to Craters of the Moon National Park.
Not only would it be Idaho’s first fully contained national park, the name-change backers say, it also would bring a higher tourism profile to Craters’ unusual lava fields and, in turn, an influx of visitors to tiny towns such as Arco, Carey and Mackay.
“When you think of the word ‘monument,’ what comes to your mind?” Merrill said. “Most people go, ‘Well — plaque, statue.’ So why would I get off a major highway to go see a monument? But if it’s a national park, then I’m going to go.”
Merrill and others hope the name change would help spark a revitalization in a town historically dominated by agriculture and in close proximity to Idaho National Laboratory’s desert site. And the movement is starting to gain steam, picking up backing from numerous counties and state legislators.
Such a national park designation requires congressional approval, and Idaho’s delegation has indicated it will pursue the idea if there is widespread support, from both local governments and the Legislature.
“They want us to thoroughly vet it out,” Bernal said of the name change, adding that so far she has heard few concerns.
AN OTHERWORLDLY LANDSCAPE
In winter, Craters of the Moon is quiet and cold. A thick layer of snow blankets the black basaltic rock for which the park is famous, and a few low-lying clouds are hung up on volcanic cones that once spewed lava.
Encompassing more than 750,000 acres, the monument and preserve includes three lava fields formed by major eruptions between 2,000 and 15,000 years ago. Despite its otherworldly geology, Craters supports as many animal species as Yellowstone National Park, and puts on a stunning show of wildflowers in springtime. It also remains a frequent NASA research and training ground.
Considering this beautiful and bizarre landscape, Bernal, Merrill and others argue that Craters is more than deserving of national park status, economic benefits aside.
And they point out that the national park designation would apply only to the original 54,000 acres proclaimed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 as a monument. Management of the rest of Craters’ roughly 700,000 acres, expanded by President Bill Clinton in 2000, would remain the same, with hunting and grazing allowed in certain areas.
“It wouldn’t make any practical difference in terms of how we manage the park or monument,” said Craters spokesman Ted Stout. He said expenses for such a changeover would mostly entail switching out signs and park literature.
Stout said the park service isn’t allowed to take a position on the proposal. But he does have a sense for what the name change might mean, especially considering national parks figure more prominently than monuments on maps and in guide books.
“The public puts a lot more importance on areas called national parks,” Stout said. “A lot of our visitors kind of stumble into this place, and we certainly could use some more name recognition.”
NATIONAL PARK POLITICS
Bernal, Merrill and other park advocates think 2016 is an ideal year to change the name. Craters would become the 60th national park at the same time the National Park Service celebrates it centennial.
After a year of getting the word out, they point to widespread support for the idea. Commissions of the five counties touching the monument and preserve have passed resolutions supporting the change, as have five other regional counties. The Idaho Association of Counties, with representation from around the state, also has formally backed the proposal.
The hangup could come in the state Legislature. Last year a resolution supporting the name change easily passed the Idaho Senate, but several concerns with the proposal arose at the tail end of the legislative session, and the House didn’t have time to work them out.
Rep. Merrill Beyeler, R-Leodore, whose district includes Custer and Lemhi counties, sponsored the House resolution last year. He said he’s passionate about moving the proposal forward again, but he wants to be careful not to rush it.
Beyeler met with Bernal and several legislative leaders on the subject this week, and said progress on the resolution was still in the “educational” phase. He said he wants to ensure no concerns about the name change arise that might catch him or other legislators off-guard.
“The chances of it occurring this session — I’m not sure it’s going to get there,” Beyeler said.
Those involved in the effort are wary of previous failed efforts to change the name. In the late 1980s, then-U.S. Rep. Richard Stallings got as far as to introduce a bill that would’ve changed the monument’s status to national park, and expanded its size. But it didn’t go anywhere, in part due to concerns over added federal restrictions raised by hunting and grazing groups.
So far, the Idaho Farm Bureau appears to be the primary group to raise issues this time around. Its concerns initially centered on whether national park status would result in any added federal restrictions on access or grazing.
However, John Thompson, the Farm Bureau’s Pocatello-based spokesman, said those worries have mostly been appeased, including a concern that U.S. 20/26 running through the park could become a toll road that would delay trucks carrying alfalfa from Jefferson County to the Magic Valley.
54,000 acres Size of proposed park — the original land preserved by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924
646,000 acres Remaining Craters property that would still be a national monument
Thompson said his organization holds reservations that once a Craters bill hits Congress, it might be amended, and then turn out to have provisions that somehow affect agriculture in or around the park. He said that although the Farm Bureau has decided it can’t explicitly support any name change legislation, it also won’t oppose it.
They need an infusion of commerce out there, and if this does it for them, that would be great.
John Thompson, Idaho Farm Bureau
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo is one member of the Idaho delegation who has indicated that he wants to see strong local and state support for the idea before introducing legislation. Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said it’s possible that progress could be made on such legislation later this year, but it would first require the state Legislature to sign off on the idea this session.
“These kind of bills are never easy, but they can be done,” Nothern said. “And Idaho has a lot of things in its favor, like not having a national park.”
‘YOU HAVE TO WORK FOR IT’
Arco never became the hub it hoped to be for well-paid Idaho National Laboratory and cleanup workers, losing out from the beginning to Idaho Falls and Pocatello, with more amenities. Local farms have consolidated, employing fewer people over the years.
The town also never fully benefited from its proximity to popular outdoor destinations such as Craters and the Lost River Range, said Chandos Gamett, 34, an Arco native and the Butte County director of Lost Rivers Economic Development.
“It’s sad, because I feel like this little town has so much to offer, and we’re not capitalizing on it,” she said. “We need to sell our lifestyle.”
Receiving national park status for Craters is just the first step in order to bring more traffic and money through town, Gamett said. “Then,” she said, “it’s our duty to get them to stop.”
Gamett, Merrill and Bernal all say they have ideas for what that will take. Part of their plan includes making brochures and building a better online presence promoting the town, with a website showing tourists other nearby sights and activities that might keep them around for a few extra days after they visit Craters. None of those promotional materials currently exist.
“We’re so archaic down here, it’s unbelievable,” said Merrill, 45, a native of Australia who serves as president of the local chamber of commerce.
MORE VISITORS, MORE NIGHTS
It’s easy for Ron Paquette, who owns the Mountain View RV Park and Restaurant on the edge of Arco, to envision how more tourists and promotion from a nearby national park would help his business. He has 35 sites, and space to build as many as 25 more. But he has no reason to expand at this point.
“I have the room,” he said. “If I could double the size and keep it occupied — if I had reason to increase in size — I think it would be great. But I don’t say, ‘Sorry, we’re full,’ too many times.”
If more people stayed at the RV park it would directly translate to more revenue for other local businesses, Paquette said. That would include Bernal’s Sinclair gas station and Bargain Barn market.
“When they spend time with me, they’re going to the market, they’re going to get gas, they’re going to the liquor store,” he said. “The longer they stay, the more wealth gets spent in town.”
Paquette, who moved to Arco two years ago, is a rarity. Most residents are leaving. Arco has lost about 100 residents in the past five years, according to U.S. Census data, and Butte County as a whole is shedding residents at a faster clip than any other Idaho county but Clark.
Merrill, Bernal and Gamett are also exceptions to the rule. All say they have no intentions of leaving, that they thrive on the small-town life and natural beauty that Arco offers. They want their kids to be able to live and work in Arco one day, if they so choose.
The first step to a local economic revival, the women are convinced, is creating Craters of the Moon National Park. Doing nothing to promote Arco will have only one result, Bernal said.
“I think it will just end up dying more and more,” she said. “And I feel like that’s the fate of many rural communities. The only way you stay viable and healthy is if you make an effort. It doesn’t just happen. For a rural community to survive, you have to work for it, and you have to give it a reason to be there.”
What’s in a name?
Data show that having “national park” in a name does make a difference. Three national monuments that have changed their designation to national parks since 2003 boosted visitation by an average of 28 percent.
Craters has averaged around 200,000 visitors in recent decades, with last year reaching about 246,000.
“(Visitors) are really impressed with Craters of the Moon once they find us,” said Craters spokesman Ted Stout. “But we’re not the easiest place to find.”