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May 8, 2021

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Researchers, conservations sue Forest Service over Spirit Lake road

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A coalition of researchers and conservation organizations is challenging in court the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to build a road through Spirit Lake’s Pumice Plain, saying the service has not done the proper environmental assessments. The road is part of a plan to replace an old intake gate at the lake that helps protect the downstream communities from catastrophic floods.

The lawsuit also alleges the Forest Service is not properly weighting the importance of the research happening at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument or the damage the road will cause.

Freshwater Ecologist Carri LeRoy said the road, if built, “honestly would make it so there’s no point for me to study the streams on the mountain anymore.”

“I’m faced with this existential crisis in terms of my research program,” she said. She has been running since 2015.

Biologist John Bishop, who has been running research projects on the mountain since the 1990s, said many of the projects on the mountain started right after it erupted in 1980.

“The future opportunity loss is maybe the biggest thing of all,” he said of the road’s destruction of research plots. “You’ve spent 40 years documenting what happens on that pathway from absolutely bare rock surface, with no biological legacies, but to get to a full forest will take multiple human generations. It will take centuries, and now we’ve lost the opportunity to keep following through.”

The lawsuit, which Bishop is a plaintiff in, seeks to halt the start of road construction until the Forest Service prepares a “legally adequate environmental impact statement addressing the direct, indirect, and cumulative effect” of the project.

The Forest Service said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Spirit Lake blockage

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, debris blocked the historic outflow of the lake, raising the water level 200 feet. Engineers built a tunnel in 1985 to drain the lake and to prevent a catastrophic flood, but the 35-year-old tunnel needs repairs and upgrades, such as adding a second safety gate with emergency features.

The U.S. Forest Service announced in March work to repair a failing intake gate at Spirit Lake will start this summer, briefly closing portions of the Truman Trail and to build a 3.4-mile access road from Windy Ridge to the old pump station near the lake.

However, researchers said not only will the road and drilling disturb research plots, ruining long-running projects, but it also could introduce invasive species to the natural laboratory.

The lawsuit

The March 22 lawsuit filed in Tacoma comes from a coalition of plaintiffs, including the Cascade Forest Conservancy; the Great Old Broads for Wilderness; the Washington Native Plant Society; the Sierra Club; researcher James Gawel; Susan Saul, a former Cowlitz County resident who was instrumental in getting Congress to create the monument; and Bishop.

The lawsuit alleges the Forest Service has violated the National Forest Management Act by not following the aquatic conservation strategy and by not preparing a proper land and resource management plan and that the Forest Service failed to consider all direct, indirect and cumulative effects of the project and did not prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, violating the National Environmental Policy Act.

Bishop said the way the Forest Service approached the environmental assessment “seemed to reflect that they had a predetermined conclusion,” and said scientists had not been consulted enough.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest Supervisor Eric Veatch wrote in his March 16 decision to build the road that while there may be short- and long-term consequences to the research, “my team and I have made every effort to design a project that reflects a balance between public safety concerns and effects to ongoing research.”

Risk to research

The Forest Service said the project is estimated to affect 4% of the designated 3,840 acre Class 1 Research Area, which includes 25 individual research plots, but LeRoy and Bishop said those numbers do not include the full scope of the damage.

As the road would cross the steam right at the top, LeRoy said all of her plots would be affected, not just the ones the road directly touches.

In a system like a stream if you mess up something at the top of the stream, it affects all of it,” she said. “There are an infinite number of future sites that I could have studied that will be devastated by the road. I’m just getting started.”

The road will cross wetlands and a dozen streams, Bishop said. He added that 25 plots is not an accurate number because while that might be what the road directly goes through, the blowing dust, erosion and other impacts from road construction will have a far broader effect. He has three active projects on the mountain, and two would be “severely impacted,” he said, along with his graduate student’s project.

And while the direct footprint of the road and construction site might be 4% of the overall monument, the Pumice Plain is the core of many research projects, so the effect would be greater.

“What percent of your body is your heart?” Bishop said. “Not a very big one, but the heart is important. This road goes through the most important area.”

There also is risk from invasive species, such as the New Zealand mud snail, that Bishop said have not been properly addressed in the Forest Service’s plan; nor has the possibility there might be a population of protected steelhead salmon in Spirit Lake, which is under investigation.

“I think they didn’t take the scientists very seriously and more critically they didn’t take the purpose of the monument very seriously,” Bishop said. “The monument is here for education, research and interpretation and the education and interpretation depend on the research.”

Balancing the needs

“There is a need to ensure the protection of public safety, health, property and the environment from a catastrophic breach of the Spirit Lake natural debris blockage,” Veatch wrote in his decision.

“My responsibility is to manage the Monument for all of the purposes for which it was established. The decision-making process is more difficult when issues of substantial risks to public safety are present,” he wrote. “This decision includes consideration of resource effects, public safety, property loss, aircraft use exposure and risk to workers, authorizing laws and regulations, land management intent, and the sense of urgency for action.”

Bishop said while there is a need to replace the system, there is not a sudden and extreme danger to downstream communities.

“We have time to solve this,” he said, adding that there are ways to safeguard both the public and the research and the idea the Forest Service had to choose one over the other is a false dichotomy.

LeRoy said the scientists have encouraged the Forest Service to “continue to use the method they’ve used for 35 years to service the tunnel and that’s to use helicopters.”

However, Veatch wrote in the decision that helicopters had been ruled out due to the time it would add to the project waiting for weather that can be flown in and the added risk to employees of repeated helicopter flights. The alternate option would not reuse old staging areas and would require untouched shoreline at Duck Bay to be developed, he wrote.

Crews could walk the two miles in, LeRoy suggested, like scientists have been doing for the past four decades.

“This is the third year in a row they’ve proposed the same exact plan and we’ve had the same objections to the plan and unfortunately they have not been willing to compromise to protect this unique landscape,” LeRoy said.

Bishop said the scientific and conservation community would be “more than happy” to work with the Forest Service and Corps of Engineers to get the money “to do this right.”

“There was not a serious consideration of alternatives that would have less impact on research and protect the downstream communities,” he said. “It might be more expensive, but it’s worth it to protect these critical areas. We’ve already invested millions of dollars into this research.”

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