The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 was a seminal moment for the people of the Pacific Northwest. Many of us can describe in detail where we were at the time of the blast.
Since then, the people of the Northwest have witnessed the amazing rebirth of an ecosystem destroyed by a blast hundreds of times more powerful than an atomic bomb. The story is, in the truest sense of an often overused term, “awesome.”
But the people of the Northwest should be aware of a slower, more insidious threat to this landscape that is, in ecological time, just beginning to heal. Foreign mining interests want to exploit the minerals at the very edge of the Mount St. Helens National Monument with a massive mine.
As awe-inspiring as the views are, the scientific value of the volcano is even greater. More than half of the world’s volcanic research happens on Mount St. Helens. This research will save lives, further our understanding of the resiliency of ecosystems, and give us clues as to how we can mitigate the effects of global climate change.
The Mount St. Helens National Monument, the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and the nearby Green River are home to a wealth of plants and animals, some of which are endangered or unique to the area. The area also provides an abundance of recreational opportunities for hikers, fisherman, hunters, horseback riders and many more. The economic benefit of these recreational opportunities runs well into millions of dollars per year for local communities.
This wealth of access to the outdoors is a large part of what makes the Pacific Northwest such a wonderful place to live.
This passionate reverence for the mountain is what drives the Gifford Pinchot Task Force and thousands of our coalition members to battle so hard for the preservation of this iconic place. For the second time in a decade, the citizens of Southwest Washington are forced to fight against a destructive mine of extremely dubious economic value.
While mining companies make promises that this time the mine will be foolproof, we are wise to learn from history. Large-scale mining and ore extraction carries serious negative environmental consequences — consequences that would be shouldered by the people who live here, not the people who will profit from the mine. Over and over, we see local communities and taxpayers left with the costs of cleaning up environmental disasters left behind by mining companies that made big promises based on speculation, but quickly retreated into bankruptcy, leaving local communities devastated and the landscape stripped and barren.
Probably the largest and most unacceptable risk of large-scale mining is water pollution. Compared to most communities in the West, we in Western Washington are blessed with abundant clean water. But we must never take that water for granted. The Pacific Northwest is marked with a multitude of Superfund sites where mines used to be.
We all use minerals every day. There is a place for mining on our public lands, but Mount St. Helens and the Green River are simply too valuable to put at risk.
Unfortunately, mining on our national forests is subject to the obsolete 1872 Mining Law. This law dates back to pick-and-shovel days when Congress was trying to incentivize pioneering of the West. Sadly, the law has not kept up with the times and today is basically a giveaway of public resources to international speculators.
However, we do not have to simply give up and accept this mine. We can do something about it. Congress has useful tools to help conserve the special natural resources of this area and provide for more balanced development. For example, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act could be used by Congress to require that the clean water, wild steelhead and priceless recreation of the Green River be protected for today and into the future.
Our elected officials have stepped up before to protect Mount St. Helens from destructive mining. But the fight re-emerges every time mineral prices attract more speculators.
It is time to ask them to protect Mount St. Helens in perpetuity so we never have to fight off foreign mining interests again. Please visit the Gifford Pinchot Task Force website at www.gptaskforce.org for more information on the proposed mine and to sign our petition to permanently protect Mount St. Helens.
Bob Dingethal is the Executive Director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a local environmental non-profit that has been actively protecting the 1.37 million acres of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest since 1985.