In Our View: No to Drilling Near Volcano

U.S. Forest Service holds the key to protecting area of natural recovery

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Start with the premise for the long-term future that mining should not be allowed around Mount St. Helens. Then, work backward in the approval process until you arrive at the point last week when the Bureau of Land Management announced that a drilling proposal by a Canada-based mining company poses no major impact to the environment near the volcano.

It’s difficult to connect those two dots and arrive at a conclusion beneficial to Mount St. Helens. Although officials say the proposal is for exploratory drilling and not for a full-scale mine (which would require additional permitting), who in their right mind believes the mining company wants to explore for any purpose other than mining?

That’s why last week’s decision by the BLM is troubling. But it helps to remember that there are more dots to connect. As Eric Florip explained in a Saturday Columbian story, the drilling proposal will not move forward without the approval of the U.S. Forest Service. We trust that an agency in charge of forests will be friendlier to Mount St. Helens than an agency in charge of managing land (BLM).

The proposed drilling site is northwest of Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It’s outside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, but as we’ve said in previous editorials, mining (or exploring for the purposes of mining) in the vicinity of the volcano is unacceptable for several reasons.

First, the area is a unique, ever-evolving laboratory for scientific research related to the May 18, 1980, explosion of the volcano. Scientists are still learning about nature’s restorative powers after such a cataclysm. In some cases, human action through conservation and mitigation can assist, but for the most part nature simply needs to be left alone. Any threats to interrupt this ongoing research must be thwarted. Thus, for the undetermined future, any additional activity in the area must serve one of only two purposes: extensive conservation or extremely limited recreation/tourism.

Supporters of exploratory drilling and mining proposals point to economic development as a motivator. But the economy can and should be developed elsewhere, in countless other places. No one suggests that the area around the volcano is the only source of gold, copper or other elements. Let the pursuit of those minerals proceed where sensitive natural recovery in a fragile environment is not put at risk.

We’re glad rigorous approval processes are in place to protect areas around Mount St. Helens. In 2008, an unrelated mining proposal at a site nearby elicited more than 30,000 public comments. That proposal was not approved because the applicant did not provide enough data about what resources were in the area. The current application for exploratory drilling hopes to answer that question.

A public-comment form and email address are available at BLM; the BLM may choose extend the July 31 deadline for comment. BLM environmental assessment.