From the Ashes

Should Mount St. Helens become a national park?


By Carol Wissmann


Mark Smith is a second-generation mountain man. Raised on an alpine resort, tucked high within Washington state’s Cascade mountain range, Smith is the progeny of parents who loved the land. His father married a local girl and volunteered clearing forest trails with the Sheriff’s Reserve Horseback Posse. In 1973, the family scraped together the funds to purchase Spirit Lake Lodge, a popular destination for tourists and sports enthusiasts alike.

But on a Sunday morning in May of 1980, the clear, blue water of Spirit Lake turned toxic. With the force of 19 atom bombs the size of those that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the adjacent area to the south exploded. The state’s fifth-highest peak laterally blasted 1,314 feet from its north face. Mount St. Helens had erupted.

After seven weeks of some 10,000 lesser precursors, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale precipitated a massive avalanche that rapidly released volcanic gasses, obliterating 150,000 acres of forest and killing every wild animal that wasn’t underground. The blast killed 57 people and destroyed 250 homes, 47 bridges, and miles of rail and road. Hurricane-force winds approached the speed of sound, searing the landscape at temperatures up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. A mushroom cloud rose 15 miles into the atmosphere. Daylight turned dark. Within two weeks, the ash would circle the globe.

The nine-hour volcanic eruption unleashed the largest landslide in recorded history, choking the Toutle River Valley and burying the Smith’s Spirit Lake Lodge beneath 500 feet of mud, rock, and debris.

But even as “hell and high water” actually came, the mountain and its people were imbued with a natural propensity for regeneration. Less than three decades after the eruption, the lake that had been stripped of oxygen and choked with scorched timber now supports life. And today, Mark Smith owns the Eco Park Resort at Mount St. Helens, a facility featuring overnight accommodations, a café, horseback tours, and nearby hunting, fishing, and helicopter rides on private property 24 miles from the monument. Like his parents before him, Smith feels an intimate connection with the mountain. “It’s not just my business, it’s my life,” he says.

That’s why Smith channels much of his time and energy into the Mount St. Helens Citizen Advisory Committee, formed in January 2008 by U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) and other federal representatives in Washington state. The group is charged with making an informed recommendation about the best course of action to ensure that Mount St. Helens remains a key tourist destination and an economic engine, while preserving its natural resources and ongoing scientific research. The group of business leaders, elected officials, and professors drawn primarily from the three counties nearest the monument is reviewing all the land-management options on the table. But it’s clear that the most logical solution is to turn this Forest Service land into a national park unit, a significant move that brings with it significant challenges.

A Historic Perspective

In 2008, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest celebrated its 100th year. One of the oldest national forests in the country, it is named after the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the area. In 1982, two years after the eruption, Congress set aside 110,300 acres within the national forest’s 1.4 million acres as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

In what some might maintain was overexuberance, five visitor centers were established on 62 miles of State Route 504, the major artery to the forest and monument. Hoffstadt Bluffs is a county facility, and the Forest Learning Center is a joint venture of Weyerhaeuser, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation; the three other visitor centers were built by the Forest Service.

But more than 25 years later, the Forest Service can’t keep the doors open. The agency ceded its most popular visitor center, near I-5, to Washington state. The Coldwater Ridge Center, once open year-round, is now closed. With the regional Forest Service budget slashed from $3 million ten years ago to $1.75 million, the agency can’t possibly sustain the two centers. “Nowhere else in the country is there a $10 million, 15-year-old visitor center that’s closed,” says Mark Plotkin, an advisory committee member who has a stake in the matter, as director of the Cowlitz County Tourism Bureau.

If the Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee determines that one of the best solutions is to turn the site over to the National Park Service, it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. National parks such as Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and Sequoia were once managed by the Forest Service.

Sean Smith, director of NPCA’s Northwest regional office, thinks that may be the best approach, and as a former naturalist at Mount St. Helens, he knows the territory, both literally and figuratively.

“It’s obvious that Forest Service funding, which has dropped significantly in the past several years, is at the root of the problem,” says Smith. “Visitor numbers are down dramatically causing restaurants, hotels, and other services to close. There are no overnight accommodations in the monument itself. Even Gray Line Bus Tours has abandoned Mount St. Helens due to a lack of services.”

Although the Park Service’s funding woes are well known, the agency’s overall operations budget for 2008 increased by $122 million, and the proposed 2009 budget already contains a $161-million increase. Indeed, each national park is guaranteed its own, separate line item in the federal government’s annual budget—quite a different arrangement than the lump sum allotted the Forest Service that must be parceled among its various regions.

“Funding is the driver here,” says Axel Swanson, Cowlitz County commissioner and Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee member. “I don’t think we’d be having this discussion if there weren’t a money element involved.”

The Forest Service is unable to quantify the amount of money spent for public recreation at Mount St. Helens, which makes it even more difficult to determine the problems and potential solutions. But during congressional testimony before Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the agency reported that Mount St. Helens had an annual budget of $1.65 million. “With the president’s 2008 request for California’s Lassen Volcano at $4.5 million, they aren’t even close,” says Swanson.

Two hours north, Mount Rainier National Park, another volcano in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” has a budget of more than $12 million. Indeed, the park’s Paradise Inn recently reopened after a two-year $23-million remodel, indicating the market for tourism in a similar site. The historic lodge’s large, wood-beamed dining room reminiscent of kids and camp, and cozy rooms featured in the PBS special, Great Lodges of the National Parks, is just the sort of destination anchor that Mount St. Helens lacks.

Use or Misuse?

Jim Adams is a member of the Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee and executive director of Discover Your Northwest (formerly the Northwest Interpretive Association), a nonprofit corporation that operates bookstores in most of the national parks and national forests in the Northwest. Although Adams confirms that funding is the primary issue, there is also a local tug-of-war about the limitations that come with national park status. The added cachet of a national park brings a list of restrictions meant to keep the unit preserved for future generations, including limits on mountain biking and hunting, among others.

“It’s a question of conservation versus mixed use,” Adams says. “Before the eruption, people around here considered Mount St. Helens their own recreational paradise. They remember the hugely popular resorts and hunting and fishing lodges around Spirit Lake, and they want to know, ‘When can we use our mountain again?’ ” A billboard sitting prominently along Washington State’s primary highway artery reveals one local sentiment in no uncertain terms: “A National Park at St. Helen’s Stops Local Use of it. Stop Brian Baird!” To offer a middle ground, some have proposed designating one portion of the monument as a park, and the other as a national preserve, a designation that would allow for hunting and even mineral extraction, if those activities could be pursued in a manner consistent with the site’s natural values. Preserves are quite common in Alaska, where many people live off the land, but are also the designations in place for Big Cypress in Florida and Mojave in the California desert.

In spite of the occasional billboard, there are plenty of locals who clearly favor strict protections. Members of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force based in Portland, Oregon, are just a few of them. Jessica Walz, conservation coordinator, explains that because the monument occupies a border of the national forest, it is surrounded on three sides by private property, so it isn’t as protected as some people might think. “Development and mining interests can cause wind and rain to wash debris into nearby rivers and streams, causing run-off that can ravage salmon and bull trout habitat,” she says. “Because it’s a regenerating ecosystem, we’re trying to safeguard it from destructive use and maintain areas for important scientific study.”

Although members of the Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee and the broader community will continue to hash out many of these issues, NPCA’s Sean Smith says one point isn’t up for debate: Everyone loves Mount St. Helens. Today nearly 400 sites constitute the National Park System, classified under one of 12 titles, including national preserves, national monuments, national recreation areas, and of course, national historic sites. But national park status is reserved for only 58 of the most worthy destinations. “Mount St. Helens is on par with the best,” says Smith.

Yet today, thousands of visitors making national park pilgrimages routinely drive the I-5 corridor, often unaware that the mountain lies just minutes to their east. They’ll not marvel at the return of red alder, prairie lupine, and pearly everlasting in the monument itself, or the 45,500 acres of Weyerhaeuser reforestation that has brought back 70-foot Douglas and Noble firs. They will not hike 13,042-foot-long Ape Cave, North America’s third longest lava tube, nor will they ever see the country’s youngest and fastest growing glacier, Crater Glacier.

But that could all change with national park status, says Sean Smith. “Compare Mount St. Helens’ annual 500,000 visitors with Mount Rainier National Park’s 1.5 million, or, consider the 60 percent increase in visitation when Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina was designated a national park. An area’s profile is immediately elevated.”

“Were there broad public support, a change to national park status could come fairly quickly,” says Smith. “As American citizens, we need to take a higher, broader view as to the management and use of the land, considering what’s best for the nearby gateway communities, the natural resources, and the people who visit.”

And though building that consensus may not be easy, bringing about such a change would seem a mountain worth moving.

The Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee is expected to present its findings and recommendations to Congress later this spring or early summer. To learn more, visit www.npca.org/takeaction.

Carol Wissmann is a freelance writer based in Gig Harbor, Washington.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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