Groups hoping they'll need a new sign at the Lava Beds National Monument Visitor Center took a step forward this week in their efforts to rally congressional support for having the monument turned into a national park.

"Gather around the Lava Beds sign, but block out the national monument part," joked Patrick Taylor, Lava Beds chief interpreter, when the 20 people touring the park Tuesday afternoon gathered for a group photo.

Included in the group were Shane Starr, district representative for California Rep. Doug LaMalfa, whose congressional district includes Lava Beds, and Tom Paulino, field representative for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. They were joined by tourism officials and business leaders from Siskiyou, Modoc and Klamath counties.

A growing coalition of groups want to designate Lava Beds as a national park, a change that would require congressional approval.

During discussions at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds before the bus tour, Jim Chadderdon, executive director of Discover Klamath Visitor & Convention Bureau, said economic studies indicate the status change would increase visitation and pump up to $163 million into the regional economy.

"For these rural areas, this is pretty big money. It's going to be a welcome addition to see those dollars flowing into our communities," Chadderdon said.

Others, including Tulelake Mayor Hank Ebinger, also cited the economic benefits. "Tulelake is working hard to reinvent itself," Ebinger said. "We're a typical little farm town in decline. ... The park designation is really important for us."

Elizabeth Norton, president of the Volcanic Legacy Community Partnership, emphasized her belief that Lava Beds "meets all the natural, cultural and historical criteria for designation as our nation's 60th national park."

Norton said she and other regional tourism and business representatives met with congressional representatives last June to discuss steps necessary to have Lava Beds redesignated. At their urging, groups supporting the change have been sending letters of support and other requested information.

"It's been really positive," she said of support from regional communities.

Following the tour, which included a brief stop to view petroglyphs, and bus views of the Peninsula, Captain Jack's Stronghold, Canby Cross, the Devil's Homestead lava flow and the Thomas-Wright Battlefield/Black Crater trailhead, the group stopped at the visitor center. Most visited nearby Mushpot Cave, the park's only lighted lava tube cave.

Lava Beds has nearly 800 caves, some with trails created by Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and '40s, but most remain undeveloped.

Both Starr and Paulino, who had never previously visited Lava Beds, said they were surprised by the rugged beauty of the landscape.

"My impression of today is this is absolutely stunning," Paulino said. "This has been an incredible day."

"Today has been a fabulous day," echoed Starr. "It has been a great opportunity to see the area."

Both said they will report back to "their bosses," Feinstein and LaMalfa, but made no promises. Both cautioned that even if LaMalfa and Feinstein support the redesignation, Congress typically moves slowly.

"We'll definitely keep in touch on the next steps," Paulino pledged.

"We have a lot of work to do," Starr agreed.

Norton said a second meeting is planned for 2 p.m., Wednesday, May 10, again beginning at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds office in Tulelake, with a longer tour of Lava Beds, possibly including a cave visit.

She said a larger delegation of supporters is expected at the May gathering, possibly including people who attended Tuesday's gathering and others from the Oklahoma Modoc and Klamath Tribes, Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum and state Rep. E. Warner Reschke, staff representatives for Oregon U.S. senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, along with Modoc and Siskiyou County supervisors. Norton said it's hoped staff for California Sen. Kamala Harris, who took office in January, will also attend the May tour.

Impacts to Lava Beds

Whether or not Lava Beds National Monument eventually becomes a national park, changes to handle increasing numbers of visitors are needed.

Lava Beds Superintendent Larry Whalon, who joined Tuesday afternoon's Lava Beds tour, said he and park staff are studying changes to deal with increased visitation. He emphasized he and park staff cannot comment on whether they support turning Lava Beds into a national park.

Whalon said Lava Beds is at about 80 percent capacity for visitors, citing use at Indian Well campground and the number of people visiting the park's most accessible lava tube caves. Even if the monument designation remains, he said park officials are looking at possibly adding camping sites, including RV spaces, and increasing the number of featured caves and trails to help disperse visitors.

If Lava Beds becomes a national park, which would likely increase annual visitation, Whalon said changes would give the park "more of a destination feel." A goal of the changes, both at the park and in neighboring communities, would be "to keep people in the area." Studies indicate increased visitation would benefit the park through increased revenue from entrance and camping fees and retail sales at the visitor center.

Whalon emphasized Lava Beds officials want and intend to keep close cooperative relations with its "neighbors," the Modoc National Forest and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I want us to be still able to work with those other units."

He also stressed Lava Beds, whether designated as a national monument or national park, will retain its feeling as a place where its natural landscape is combined with its human history.

"We're not trying to become Crater Lake or Lassen Volcanic national parks," Whalon insisted. "We're Lava Beds."

Economic impact

A tri-county area that includes Klamath, Modoc and Siskiyou counties could see increased visitation and significantly more tourism-related dollars, according to a Lava Beds National Monument Redesignation Project report, Chadderdon said before the tour.

Turning Lava Beds into a national park would increase visits from people already going to Lassen Volcanic National Park, about a 2½-hour drive from Lava Beds, and Crater Lake National Park, about a 1½ hours away, according to the report.

Based on National Park Service figures, Lava Beds had about 124,100 visitors in 2015, which created a $4.9 million economic impact. The study predicts Lava Beds would have upwards of 12,400 to 24,000 additional annual visits. If Lava Beds is a national park, the report predicts that within two years, projected annual revenue increases to the park would be between $588,700 to $642,400.

The projected annual increase to local communities from increased visitor spending, according to the report, would be between $23 million and $32.6 million in direct spending, and between $117.5 million and $163 million in "recirculated/secondary dollars."

"Five percent of existing visitors to other (nearby) national parks will now stay one extra night and spend the average daily spending level ($118 per person per day), because there is a new national park attraction nearby," according to the report.

Chadderdon said the report is based on a 2015 National Park Service study, "Oregon Travel Impacts," by Dean Runyon & Associates; Travel Oregon; internal Lava Beds records; internal data from Travel Southern Oregon, Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association and Discover Klamath; and 2015 statistics from Oregon Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor.

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.