At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded with the force of a 20-megaton bomb.
In a matter of minutes, the volcano radically reshaped a 230-square-mile swath of Southwest Washington’s forested landscape.
Human management has been much less decisive since 1980.
We’ve rebuilt the sleepy, two-lane Spirit Lake Memorial Highway into a modern marvel of highway engineering, but it dead-ends after 52 miles. We’ve constructed five visitors centers along the highway, and periodically closed three of them — one permanently. We’ve set aside thousands of acres for scientific research under Forest Service management, but hunters and snowmobilers worry about losing access if it’s turned over to the National Park Service.
Thirty years later, we still don’t know what to do with Mount St. Helens.
Preservation the ‘overriding goal’
Former U.S. Rep. Don Bonker, who represented the area around the volcano at the time of the eruption, recalled touring the smoldering devastation on board a helicopter with President Jimmy Carter. Fifty-seven people died in the eruption, a treasured destination had been ruined, and emotions were raw.
Two years later, he shepherded legislation creating the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
“The idea was to allow tourism, but the overriding goal was preservation of the monument area,” Bonker said. “I think there are boundaries, so we don’t open it up to a point where tourism desecrates the area and undermines the original purpose of the act.”
There appears to be little danger of that.
Despite the fact that it’s the only active volcano in the contiguous United States — an “international icon,” in the words of Gifford Pinchot National Forest Supervisor Janine Clayton — visitation has generally remained flat under Forest Service stewardship. The cash-strapped agency, struggling with steep declines in timber sales, has struggled to keep up with basic maintenance in the ever-evolving volcanic landscape.
Trails and roads have fallen into disrepair.
In 2007, just as a new erupting lava dome was capturing worldwide attention, the Forest Service permanently closed the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. The closure occurred just 14 years after the facility opened as a state-of-the-art visitor attraction that also happened to house the only restaurant within the monument boundaries.
“I’m outraged,” said Axel Swanson, a Cowlitz County commissioner. “That’s a $10 million-plus visitor center sitting up there empty and not being used.”
Although the Forest Service is pouring in $10 million of new funding this year — helped by a large infusion of federal economic stimulus cash — Swanson points out that the agency’s annual budget for Mount St. Helens is a fraction of that of comparable national parks.
Mount St. Helens National Park?
The closure of Coldwater initially prompted U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to call for a takeover by the National Park Service.
Cantwell backed down after fellow Sen. Patty Murray and Reps. Brian Baird and Norm Dicks agreed to form a citizen advisory committee to explore the community’s vision for the monument and how it ought to be managed.
The committee met several times in 2008 and the first part of 2009.
During a process that generated more than 15,000 public comments, a majority of the 14-member committee recommended sticking with the Forest Service. However, it took a year just to schedule a meeting with Cantwell, Murray and Baird. Finally, last month, the committee gathered in Longview to deliver its recommendation through a video-teleconference link from Washington, D.C.
Committee members concluded the Forest Service would best maintain current recreational access to the monument, but made it clear they expected much more consistent funding.
“Mount St. Helens is one of our national treasures and important not only to the 3rd Congressional District, but to the state and to the nation,” Cantwell told committee members. “The status quo is not acceptable.”
The group recommended expanding opportunities for overnight accommodations, especially on the west side.
In the wake of the eruption, the federal government provided $160 million for the state to totally rebuild the last 30 miles of state Highway 504 east of Interstate 5 in Castle Rock. The highway carries the majority of visitors to the volcano, but development is limited by the inability of private operators to tap into basic utilities such as electricity and water. There are no Forest Service campgrounds, no lodges, no restaurants beyond a mobile hamburger stand in the parking lot at Johnston Ridge.
For the vast majority of visitors, Mount St. Helens is a day trip.
That bothers Mark Plotkin, the Cowlitz County tourism director who joined fellow advisory committee member Mark Smith in delivering a “minority report” calling for Mount St. Helens to become Washington’s fourth national park.
Plotkin recalled stopping at an information station on the southern edge of Mount Rainier National Park, near clusters of campgrounds.
“On this board, it has all the things happening that day or over the weekend. It starts at 6 a.m. with wildlife adventures, down to 10 at night with interpretive talks around the campfire,” he said. “No one, in a day trip, is going to get there at 6 in the morning and stay till 10 at night.”
The advisory committee suggested repurposing the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center.
Plotkin advocates the possibility of establishing dorm-like accommodations for researchers or school groups. The committee’s recommendation goes further, suggesting Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge or Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier as examples of the kind of high-end resort that might be possible.
Forest Service officials are wary.
“Visitors would look around and say, ‘Where’s the golf course, where’s the wine tasting?’” said Tom Mulder, the monument manager.
High-impact development is unlikely in the monument, both because of public resistance and the reality of trying to build in such a forboding landscape. Developing private land isn’t a slam-dunk, either. “It is a volcano,” said Glenn Lamb, director of Columbia Land Trust, which is working to conserve private timberland southeast of Mount St. Helens.
Insurance may be expensive within the blast zone, assuming utilities could be delivered and assuming the largest private landowner — Weyerhaeuser Co. — was interested or willing to sell.
Mark Smith, whose family owned a lodge along Spirit Lake before 1980 and now runs the EcoPark Resort 17 miles west of the volcano, said land trades after the eruption consolidated Weyerhaeuser’s control of the west side. Timber production, as opposed to dispersed recreational development, was paramount for the company.
“Weyerhaeuser was the economy around here,” Smith said.
In announcing the closure of Coldwater Ridge, after years spent begging the Northwest regional office in Portland for enough money to maintain both Coldwater and the Johnston Ridge Observatory nine miles beyond, Mulder said the agency will focus on offering a lower-key experience “and not necessarily wowing people with infrastructure and visitor centers.”
An oasis for science
Minimizing development also helps to maintain a rare oasis of scientific research, a place where scientists have been able to track ecological recovery from a blank slate.
“Where on the planet do we have 30 years of uninterrupted research?” said Clayton, the Gifford Pinchot forest supervisor. “I think the value of that has been terribly underrated. It’s only about where we can put a 7-Eleven and make some money.”
A decade ago, the Gifford Pinchot successfully resisted a plan to push the highway beyond Johnston Ridge. The Washington Department of Transportation spent $300,000 studying the idea, at the behest of local officials who wanted a loop route enabling motorists to connect to the Forest Service road system at Windy Ridge.
Scientists say trails already provide public access through the fragile pumice plain, but visitors must be prepared to hike.
That’s fine with John Bishop, a Washington State University Vancouver biologist who tracks long-term research plots in the area.
“There ought to be more people hiking out there, not less,” he said. “I think people ought to see the place. It’s wonderful. The recovery process is amazing, the vegetation is quite remarkable. It’s a very interesting place to visit.”
Even so, he’s wary of developing new trails crisscrossing the pumice plain with horses or motorized vehicles.
“Those things would seriously impact our research,” he said.
Jeanne Bennett, executive director of the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute, sees nothing wrong with the current experience afforded by Mount St. Helens. The institute is organizing a 10-mile hike later this summer in the undulating terrain between alpine lakes.
“This is where you’ve got to get out on your feet,” she said. “If all you do is drive up to the visitor center, you’ll miss the story.”
Even so, Plotkin believes it’s only a matter of time before Mount St. Helens becomes a national park. He said neighboring residents have historically resisted the formation of almost all national parks, but he believes younger generations will see the benefits — through enhanced funding and the prestige that comes with national park status — far outweighing the costs in terms of the perception of restricting recreational access.
For now, he said, too many people remember boating or swimming in the emerald waters of Spirit Lake before the eruption. They don’t want any more changes.
“The communities are still healing and they’re still mourning for lack of a better term,” Plotkin said. “They’re not going to get behind this gateway idea with the force that they will in the future.”