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Geologists want congressional recognition, money for natural landmark

WASHINGTON—Geologists—and tourist-seeking businesses—want Congress to create a 600-mile drive-through trail through an ancient lakebed in the Pacific Northwest so that visitors to Montana, Idaho, Washington state and Oregon can discover geologic history from 13,000 years ago.

Ice dams that held back Glacial Lake Missoula burst at the end of the last Ice Age and the water, gushing with the force of 60 Amazon rivers, carved a new landscape from what's now Missoula, Mont., to Eugene, Ore. It also formed a lake 2,000 feet deep and as big as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined.

"In my eyes, the purpose of the trail is to put this thing together as a cohesive story of a force of nature," Gary Kleinknecht, the president of the Ice Age Floods Institute, a regional geologists' group, told members of the Senate national parks subcommittee this week.

The floods created the 189-foot Palouse Falls in eastern Washington state as well as Dry Falls, with a rim five times as wide as Niagara Falls, at Grand Coulee in northern Washington. They scoured much of central Washington to bedrock and, at the Oregon end, dropped a load of topsoil that made Willamette Valley fertile for farming.

"I hate to say it, but you have to see it to believe it," Kleinknecht told lawmakers. "It's an amazing thing."

The nation's first geologic trail would link existing parks and would include roadside stops and interpretation sites along a route that runs west from Missoula on Interstate 90, turns south on Highway 395, then west on I-84 and south on I-5 to Eugene.

Carl Wilgus, Idaho's director of tourism, thinks it's a great idea.

"We know the growth of historical cultural tourism is really important to a lot of travelers these days. We like to take advantage of those opportunities since tourism has been on the rebound since 9-11," he said in a telephone interview.

Idaho's tourism revenues rose 7 percent last year, according to Wilgus, and he expects a "banner year" in 2005, thanks largely to tourists participating in the 3,700-mile-long Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail's bicentennial commemoration.

Bills to create the Ice Age Floods Geologic Trail, which the National Park Service would jointly develop and operate with local governments, are pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Donald Murphy, the deputy director of the Park Service, testified that the trail would cost $500,000 a year to operate and total development costs would be $8 million to $12 million. The Park Service, which is short of money, isn't keen on the project, but Northwestern lawmakers are.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050630 ICEAGEPARK

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