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May 27, 2022

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Spirit Lake tunnel project moves forward

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LONGVIEW — The U.S. Forest Service’s plan to build a road through Spirit Lake’s Pumice Plain is set to move forward this summer after a judge ruled in favor of the agency and the project received a water permit late last month.

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.

In March, a coalition of researchers and conservation organizations challenged the plan to build the temporary access road through the pumice plain, saying the service has not done the proper environmental assessments. 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.

On Dec. 22, District Court Judge Robert Bryan ruled in favor of the Forest Service, finding the agency did not act “arbitrarily, capriciously, or contrary to law.”

Western Environmental Law Center attorney Susan Jane Brown said the decision was “a sizeable disappointment” and she and her clients are discussing appealing.

Brown represents the 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 biologist John Bishop.

“Most important for my clients is the Forest Service continues to not appreciate the unique value of Mount St. Helens and really has turned a blind eye to the initial purposes of the monument when it was designated in 1982 to preserve the area in its natural state and focus on unparalleled research opportunities that the monument and the Spirit Lake Pumice Plain present to the research community,” Brown said.

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, debris blocked the historic outflow of Spirit 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.

The project will have four phases. The work will include briefly closing portions of the Truman Trail and building a 3.4-mile access road from Windy Ridge to the old pump station near the lake.

Throughout the planning process, 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 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.

In his December order, Bryan wrote the Forest Service complied with requirements when crafting its plan, including properly considering probable consequences of the work.

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