Mount St. Helens and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest will get makeovers this year, as millions of dollars pour into the area with federal stimulus and other funds.
"Nearly every site on Mount St. Helens will see a facelift. Many other campgrounds will see improvements. Our administrative sites will be more energy-efficient and, most importantly, we should produce many jobs," said Ron Freeman, a public services staff officer with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
"Not since the building of the original visitor centers and State Route 504 has there been this much money and activity going on here," said Tom Mulder, manager of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. "It's as big as I've ever seen here."
Trails and roads will be repaired, buildings and exhibits will be modernized and the Johnston Ridge Observatory will finally get the amphitheater originally planned in 1984. When sitting in the 160-seat facility, visitors will be able to take in lectures with a stunning view of the volcano in the background.
All told, more than $15.5 million in work is planned throughout the 1.3 million-acre Gifford Pinchot. Some projects are deferred maintenance, while others are long-planned additions that finally have enough cash for a green light.
The vast majority of the money — $12.57 million — comes from federal stimulus funds for facilities, recreation and bridge repairs. But several other funding sources are contributing.
The U.S. Forest Service, for example, committed $1.2 million during its 2008 pitch to retain management of the volcanic monument. The Congressional Mount St. Helens Advisory Committee considered shifting the monument to the National Park Service but ultimately voted to leave the management as-is. (The recommendation has yet to be forwarded to federal lawmakers.)
Contracts will be awarded this year and some work already has started. Some projects, though, may not be finished until the summer of 2011, depending on time and logistics, said Terri Jarrell, a Forest Service special projects manager. Jarrell is managing 56 projects and helping coordinate another 21.
"We're not going to get it all done this year, but we are planning on getting it all started," she said.
After 15 years of cut budgets and deferrals, officials say it's nice to be worried about finishing projects rather than delaying them.
Just the volcanic monument, for example, has a maintenance backlog of $29 million. The new funds will put a dent in that, but there's still work to do in coming years. And, roughly a third of the monument's share of the money is earmarked for new enhancements rather than deferred repairs, Mulder said.
That said, Mulder said, the staff is stretched to its limit with this year's windfall and likely couldn't take on any new projects even if the money was available.
"We're happy to have this as a problem," Jarrell said of all the work. "It's going to be exciting here."
Johnston Ridge revamp
The most "exciting" work is at Johnston Ridge, which will get everything from new carpets to the amphitheater, according to Jarrell.
"You'll honestly see upgrades to pretty much everything there," she said. "And we hope to have a bunch done by the 30th anniversary (of the May 18, 1980 eruption)."
There are repairs to electrical systems and walls and windows, but in addition visitors also will see new exhibits and updates to existing information. The theater will be revamped and a new film, titled "Return to Life," also is in the works, though it likely won't be ready until the summer of 2011. New languages also will be added to the center's translation system.
Southwest of the visitor center, the amphitheater planned as part of the original construction finally will take shape. The outdoor seating area was cut during construction in the mid 1990s and delayed yet again in 2000 due to budget cuts. Now, it's part of $650,000 in Forest Service funds identified as national priorities.
The tentative design would seat 160 people, who will hear presentations from rangers without obstructing the view from the main plaza outside the visitor center. The amphitheater should allow more people to hear each presentation than on the plaza, and still features a stunning view into the crater.
"It's been started twice, but this time we're actually going to do it," Jarrell said of previous planning and design efforts.
"It's been on the blackboard a long time, but I don't think any of us thought we'd actually see it," Mulder said. The amphitheater's ground breaking is scheduled during the 30th anniversary commemoration ceremonies, he added.
Also being added is a fee portal at the edge of the Johnston Ridge parking lot. This should decrease congestion at the center's entrance - where fees are collected now - and ensure that every visitor pays. Some visitors mistakenly believe if they just visit the outdoor areas of Johnston Ridge that there is no fee, Jarrell said.
The shuttered Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center also is getting money - most of it is to upgrade and preserve the building. The large, heat-leaking windows will be replaced and electrical and heating systems will be updated.
The Coldwater funding was controversial when it was announced because the center is closed, and the Forest Service has no plans to reopen it as a visitor center. The closure, which came just 14 years after the $11.5 million center opened, also raised eyebrows. Officials then said they needed to reserve funds just to maintain Johnston Ridge.
Jarrell said the stimulus money will allow officials to extend the life of the Coldwater building until a new use can be found.
"We're primarily fixing it up to extend its life and hopefully convert it to another use," she said.
The congressional advisory committee recommended converting the building into something else, such as a hotel or a fine dining restaurant.
Elsewhere near the monument the Pine Creek Information Center on the south side of the volcano is getting improvements and a new source of power more stable than the current generator. The center reopened last year and brought in 18,500 visitors in two months, which officials say shows it's needed and valuable.
"In a sense we're giving that site a facelift," Jarrell said. "If we can take care of that site it will be well on its way to being more viable."
At Windy Ridge, on the east side of Spirit Lake, interpretive signs that "really need replacing" are being overhauled and the area spruced up, Mulder said.
The Ape Cave area also will get about 45 new parking spaces, which should about double the existing parking at the popular south volcano site, Jarrell said.
Beyond the volcano
Work isn't just planned around the volcano — bridges, trails, signs and buildings are getting revamped, restored or repaired throughout the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which stretches from the Columbia Gorge to Mount Rainier National Park.
Nine aging bridges will be replaced in areas stretching from Packwood to Trapper Creek, and roads in the Mount Adams and Cowlitz Valley Ranger districts will be improved.
Trails are being repaired and interpretive signs are being replaced in some spots and added in others. Some signs may also be updated to better reflect the story the Forest Service wants to tell, Jarrell said.
The Gifford Pinchot also has received $1.2 million in recreation fee receipts that will be used to spruce up campgrounds throughout the forest, Freeman said. Crews will replace fire rings, tables and toilets in many campgrounds, he said. The work began last year and continues in 2010.
"It will be a busy construction season this summer on the forest," Freeman said. "When it rains it pours."
All the work means visitors may see construction throughout the forest and monument, but officials say there are no plans to close or restrict access.
"We are trying really hard to not shut down any areas," Jarrell said. "Right now all places, especially Johnston Ridge, is going to be operational while this is going on."
Mulder said contracts are being written to have the most disruptive work done after visiting hours but added officials aren't trying to hide the improvements.
"We're passionate about making this investment very visible to the taxpayers who are paying for it," he said. "We think this is something we and our partners should celebrate."
Much of the work will be done by contractors, but the Forest Service also has hired a few extra workers to oversee and administer the work.
"It's a fun and exciting opportunity for us," Jarrell said. "And I think the public is going to really benefit from what we do."