CASTLE ROCK, Wash. – Thirty years after the eruption of Mount St. Helens leveled a forest and rained volcanic ash for miles around, the devastated mountain remains an important center for volcano research and science.
But some critics of the way Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is managed argue that it could be much more, perhaps even a national park on par with some of the grandest – Yosemite, Mount Rainier and the Grand Canyon.
“It’s got unique and iconic resources and landscape that make it equal to (those parks),” said Sean Smith, northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Smith, who got to know the volcano’s many moods as a ranger in the 1990s, said making St. Helens a national park would raise its profile, draw more visitors and provide a steady dedicated stream of money.
Since its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980, the picturesque mountain with its telltale horseshoe-shaped crater has captivated scientists and visitors. Within minutes of a 5.1 earthquake that morning, the volcano’s north flank collapsed, triggering the largest landslide ever recorded. The blast killed 57 people, flattened 230 square miles of forests and blew 1,300 feet off the peak.
In 1982, Congress set aside 110,000 acres for the monument and put it in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service to be managed as part of the larger Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington.
Mark Plotkin, tourism director for Cowlitz County, said the past several years haven’t been the brightest for the monument, which has seen limited resources, reduced services, the permanent closure of one visitors center – Coldwater Ridge – and the state takeover of another.
“Right now, we’re doing the minimum necessary to keep the doors open,” said Plotkin, who favors national park status.
Advocates for park status cite a University of Washington report that found St. Helens got about $3.26 per acre in federal dollars from the Forest Service in 2007, while other monuments within the National Park Service received three to six times more money on a per-acre basis.
A congressional committee spent over a year exploring, in part, whether St. Helens should become the state’s fourth national park.
Last month, it recommended significant improvements for the monument, including better road connections, overnight lodging and recreational access for a wide variety of visitors.
“I think there was an underlying feeling that it was somewhat neglected,” said Paul Pearce, a Skamania County Commissioner. “We want them to take action that they recognize it’s a special place.”
The committee recommended that the volcano remain a national monument rather than a park, but urged that it be given dedicated funding so money can’t be raided for other Forest Service needs, such as fighting wildfires.
Tom Mulder, the monument’s manager, said the Forest Service is the best agency to run the monument. He said improvements are under way with a new flow of money, including more than $6 million in stimulus dollars announced last year to improve roads, trails and staffing.
Though some community members wanted to open up access to the monument – one-third is restricted for research – the committee and Mulder say scientific research should continue unimpeded.
“Mount St. Helens has been a master teacher for an entirely new generation of scientists,” said Carolyn Driedger, a hydrologist and outreach coordinator for USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory.
The much-studied mountain has become a world-class outdoor laboratory for the study of volcanoes, ecosystems and forestry, and on a recent hike there, monument scientist Peter Frenzen pointed out signs of recovery.
Green moss carpeted the once-lunar landscape, songbirds chirped in a grove of red alders, ducks swam in a spring-fed pond and a small herd of elk roamed in the distance.
“It’s quite incredible the amount of life out here,” he said. “It’s a terrific opportunity for people to understand the forces of the Earth.”
He said the biggest surprise has been the chaotic nature of the recovery. Plants and animals that survived the blast acted as “lifeboats” for other things to survive.
Frenzen pointed out an 8-feet tall standing dead tree bulldozed over during the 1980 eruption, and noted signs of nesting holes excavated by birds.
As he spoke, two tourists from Norway stopped to ask why the road to Johnston Ridge Observatory, St. Helen’s main attraction, was closed. The observatory opens to the public on Sunday.