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Conservation Challenges 30 Years After the Eruption -- Mount Saint Helens


Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
  Conservation Challenges 30 years after the Eruption       
by Charlie Raines                    

(photo of Mt. St. Helens Spirit Lake by Susan Saul)

The Mt. St. Helens area is a unique and stunning landscape of international importance. It is the site of great geologic events with numerous eruptions, ash deposits and lava flows. It also has ecological treasures such as the old-growth forests of the Green River, the swirling blowdown on Mt. Margaret and newly formed lakes. It provides a unique scientific laboratory to study the response of the ecosystem to a major transforming event in 1980. Those responses vary dramatically in type and speed over the past 30 years, depending on the locale, the surviving plants and animals and the myriad effects of climate, continuing geologic changes and adjacent forest lands. From the smallest bacteria to the largest elk, the changes at Mt. St. Helens continue.

Our efforts to conserve the full expanse of those marvelous landscapes and biologic diversity must also continue.

Ecosystem Protection not just a Scenic Overlook
Protection of ecological and geological processes and scientific research are paramount, as stated in the 1982 legislation establishing the 110,000 acre Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument under Forest Service management. Sierra Club and others had proposed a 216,000 acre National Monument based on a broader ecosystem approach. The contrast between the powerful impact of the blast and lahar, the resilience of the forest and meadows just beyond and the protected patches of old-growth forests was stark. These features extend miles from the crater in all directions, and demonstrate how the volcanic landscape is more than just the cone and Spirit Lake. Many of those features were left out of the Monument boundaries.

For instance, Hanaford Lakes was excluded and have now been subdivided for recreational development, despite being within the blast zone. Other areas that should be included in the Monument are the old-growth forests of Fossil Creek, the roadless areas of Tumwater Mtn. and Strawberry Mtn., and the rapidly evolving rivers that flow from the recontoured volcano, such as Muddy River, and Pine Creek with its endangered bull trout. A major threat has resurfaced on Goat Mountain where an open pit copper mine has been proposed. The roadless areas should also be evaluated for designation as wilderness.

Recreation that Respects Recovery and Research
Recreation and interpretation are also important benefits of the Monument and help support the local economy. But, public use is a challenge, as inappropriate use can disturb the fragile lands, and otherwise shift ecosystem responses. Fishing should not be allowed in the new Spirit Lake, which provides a 30 year scientific record of natural lake recovery.  Introduction of non-native plants, insects and other life forms would come along with the anglers. There are lots of fishing opportunities nearby, including Coldwater Lake in the Monument, which is stocked with trout but is underutilized. The Club was successful this year in stopping this proposal in both the legislature and the Fish & Wildlife Commission.

We have opposed proposals for lodging and other excessive recreational facility development. Any resorts or overnight accommodations should be outside the Monument on private land.

Declining funding and staffing have taken its toll. This has led the Forest Service to drift towards commercial enterprises and motor-dependent recreation. Greater funding is needed to protect resources, support scientific research and provide suitable recreational and interpretive facilities.

Unfortunately, resources have been wasted responding to repeated calls for a new highway across the volcano, which the Forest Service says is incompatible with the Monument and the Transportation Department says is totally infeasible from financial safety standpoints.

Solution: Larger Area, Better Protection, More Funding
Sierra Club supports legislation to improve and expand the protection and management of the lands around the volcano. The Mt. St. Helens area has the outstanding values that characterize a national park and such a designation is certainly appropriate. However, national park status would affect some areas where hunting is currently allowed. Protection and appropriate public use could also be achieved under the NVM designation, but only with additional legislative direction and funding.