by Todd Dayton
Bend Bulletin Staff Writer
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK Cerulean is the word poets use to describe a luminous sky or a deep blue lake.
That's an understatement many people use for the watery jewel at the center of Oregon's only national park.
A dictionary or thesaurus is worthless here. People have to use their imagination, if they can catch their breath enough to think.
Revered by the Klamath Indians for millennia, Crater Lake was first seen by white men nearly 150 years ago. Visitors have long marveled at the clarity of the lake's water and its picturesque setting in the caldera of a volcano that exploded 7,000 years ago.
A century ago this year, President Teddy Roosevelt signed the lake and its surrounding forests into being as the country's seventh national park.
Crater Lake National Park now draws close to half a million visitors each year. People come to take in the stunning views, drive the 33-mile Rim Drive, visit the historic lodge and ponder the wonders of nature. The park has also long attracted scientists looking to unravel its secrets.
And as it celebrates a centennial this summer, the park's second century may be the century of science.
One of the larger developments in the park's immediate future is a Science and Learning Center, which will bring together scientists, educators, students and the general public under one roof. In an era when federal agencies must do more with less money, the park has come up with creative ways to find more cash.
The idea is to integrate scientific research into management decisions and public presentations. Teachers and their students would also visit the center to learn directly from the scientists.
"You close the loop," said Mac Brock, Crater Lake's chief of resource preservation and research. "That's a new idea. Science for science's sake would be a thing of the past."
The kicker for National Park history buffs is that two historic buildings will get much-needed makeovers in the process.
Science has a long history at Crater Lake, dating back to Clarence Sutton's 1886 U.S. Geological Survey expedition to sound the watery depths using a piano wire and a pipe.
In the past 10 to 15 years, science has taken on an increasing presence in the park, according to Brock. In addition to park staff studies, scientists from around the world visit to study the lake's pristine water and the caldera's unique geology, wildlife and air quality.
Officials hope to strike a better bargain with visiting scientists, offering work and living space in exchange for their research.
A long-overdue renovation will transform the old supervisor's home above the park headquarters into the Science and Learning Center.
Currently occupied only by rodents and other forest critters, the 1930s-era house sits in disrepair. From the outside, the stone and wood structure looks in decent shape, aside from boarded windows and sagging eaves. On the inside, things are a lot worse.
Plaster crumbles from the ceiling. The walls have holes in them. Animal droppings litter the floors.
But the building is a National Historic Landmark.
Brock envisions a prettier picture: five bedrooms transformed into offices with computers and Internet access. The dining room will be a meeting space. The living room, with its stone fireplace, would make a fantastic place for small presentations to the public or to other scientists.
"We want to first and foremost preserve the historic structure," Brock said. "There are only a handful of (buildings like) these in the national park system."
Just down the hill from the supervisor's residence is the old chief naturalist's house. The tin roof is battered and patched. Wooden beams sag and are splintered from the elements.
Crews of scientists now stay there while doing research in the park, but Brock said the building needs a lot of work before it becomes the dormitory for the science center.
"We provide them a bed, an office and a place to make a meal, and we get a lot of scientific research," Brock said.
He envisions scientists, graduate students, social scientists and even artists spending their summers at the center, sharing knowledge with each other and the public. The park already has many of the labs and equipment visiting scientists and students might need.
All of this comes at a low cost to the scientists and to the taxpayers, Brock said. But the project is still years away.
"We've got our eyes on the bricks and mortar right now," Brock said. Renovations will cost $1.25 million for the supervisor's residence and $300,000 for the chief naturalist's house. That may be nothing to the federal government, but it's a tall order for a park with an annual operating budget of $4 million.
The solution comes in an unusual partnership that involves private donations, national parks money, income from entrance fees and a portion of the proceeds for a Crater Lake license plate due out in August.
"When you start to see all kinds of people coming together to support one of their state icons, it's incredible," Brock said.
Park supervisor Chuck Lundy said that Crater Lake's plans for an educational center developed in tandem with a new National Park Service program.
In 1999, the park service proposed 32 learning centers across the country. Congress appropriated $2.7 million to establish and fund the first of them over the past two years.
Currently, 13 are operating across the country, according to Point Reyes National Seashore superintendent Don Neubacher, where the Pacific Coast Learning Center has been in business for over a year. Neubacher is involved in the effort to establish learning centers nationwide.
Neubacher said the Point Reyes science center benefited from an estimated $500,000 in research last year. It can now share that information with park users. Some 80 research projects are going on within the seashore, with between 20 and 30 researchers using the research center in one way or another.
Congress is waiting to see how well the established research centers do before providing more funding, Neubacher said.
"They are tremendously valuable." he said.
Lundy hoped that once Crater Lake's center is off the ground, Congress would appropriate funds for the estimated $150,000 annual operating costs. Additional funds might help schools bus students to the park or provide grants for research, Lundy said.
"It's a project we are very excited about," he said.
With expanding responsibilities outpacing annual budgets, national parks nationwide are thinking of creative ways to come up with cash.
Lundy said the Oregon park is putting together a 15- to 20-member Crater Lake Foundation Board, which would be "purposely, creatively focused on funding for Crater Lake," including the research center.
"We would probably be the fifth or sixth park that has embarked on the development of a board like this," Lundy said.
Public agencies seeking private funding is a trend to watch, according to Chris Wood, director of public lands and watershed programs for Trout Unlimited. Wood is a former senior adviser to the chief of the Forest Service.
"It's definitely going to be an issue in the future even if it is sort of novel now,"
Wood said. "You've got these cash-strapped agencies who want to show off their programs."
While funding has remained flat for most public agencies, visitation rates continue to climb, Wood said.
"We ought to be willing to make investments, as taxpayers, in maintaining public lands," he said.
But Crater Lake officials aren't waiting around for Congress to catch on. Instead, they're pushing on with plans for the science center, and with their own research.
One of the more visible projects is an ongoing water study. Frequently seen from tour boats and lake overlooks, park service and other scientists spend long afternoons out on the water, testing for purity, clarity, chemical composition and other elements.
Some visitors are also noticing that whitebark pines along that caldera rim are dying, particularly on the west side near Rim Village.
"We're going to lose most of the whitebark pine in the park," Crater Lake ecologist Michael Murray said. With those trees also goes a major food source for animals.
The culprit is whitebark blister rust, an exotic fungus, and there's no way to stop it. When it kills whitebarks, sometimes nothing replaces them.
"Whitebark pine forms a forest where no other trees can survive," Murray said.
By cataloguing where the disease has spread, and documenting the tiny percentage of trees that appear to have a natural resistance to the fungus, Murray hopes to save the species.
Workers will collect seeds from those few survivors and reseed the park after most of the species has died.
Whitebark pine seedlings grow for half a century before producing cones. So Murray may not be around to see the healthy new forest.
That's all right, he said, because parks are forever.