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At 20 inches and two and a half pounds, the rainbows I saw were as large as any I've caught in a lifetime of fishing the Pacific Northwest—but the fish, too, were becoming more like their former selves. Nine years after Crisafulli began tagging them, either because Spirit Lake is becoming less productive or because too many trout now vie for the same amount of food, or both, their average weight has been cut in half.

Some fly fishers see the ongoing changes in Spirit Lake as a problem—of overpopulation—and offer themselves as the solution. "There's a world-class fishery going untapped, and it's the right of the citizens to fish it," Denny Way tells me. The president of the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers club, he's proposed opening up Spirit Lake before the trout shrink: ten catch-and-release fly fishers, along with a trained host, one day a week. The scientists, meanwhile, note that a dozen neighboring lakes are open to fishing but are undervisited and that at Spirit the danger is not the numbers but the precedent: ten fishermen or a hundred, the door would be open. Nominally about fish, the argument goes deeper: What should the monument be for?

The question is everywhere. If the two decades following the eruption were the monument's boom—five visitor centers, hundreds of miles of roads, millions of sightseers—today has the appearance of a bust. The largest center, Coldwater Ridge, where exhibits focused on biological recovery, closed in 2007 as budgets shrank. The west side has only two full-time interpretive rangers; the south and east, only one. The monument's life-support system is volunteers from the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute, seasonal workers, and interns. Seventy percent of its roughly $1.8-million recreation budget comes from user fees. The rest is tied to that of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and funds increasingly go to firefighting. While statistics are scarce—another victim of the budget crunch—monument staff and business owners like Mark Smith agree that visitation has fallen far from the heyday of the 1980s and '90s. A quarter of those who now come are foreigners, who camp out or stay in nearby lodges. Americans tend to make day-trips, driving up Spirit Lake Memorial Highway and past the shuttered Coldwater center to an overlook, then heading back to Interstate 5.

Some hope for a Mount St. Helens National Park, with congressional funding, lodging, and more money for more science. Funds are starting to flow, with more than $6 million in federal stimulus last year, plus a $163,000 grant to the Mount St. Helens Institute for an exhibit at the end of the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The 30th anniversary means renewed interest. "In my talks at St. Helens I tried to get people to realize that the volcano is not static," says the National Parks Conservation Association's Sean Smith, a former St. Helens ranger now pushing for park status. "I'd hold up an Etch A Sketch and say the monument's like this drawing. The forces of nature control one knob. The public has the other."

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