Gov. Gary Locke said that building a road across the foot of Mount St. Helens "will never happen" as he deleted $400,000 for economic studies of the roadway from a funding bill Wednesday.
The veto of the study money appears to kill — at least for now — efforts of nearby counties and tourist interests to extend State Route 504 across the mountain's pumice plain near Spirit Lake. Such a route would allow motorists to loop to the east side of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
The money would have paid for studies determining whether the project would increase tourism and pay for itself with tolls, said Van Youngquist, the former Cowlitz County commissioner who spearheaded the project as a consultant for neighboring counties.
"I think it's a blow to tourism in this whole Southwest Washington area," he said.
Youngquist said the study appeared to falter when Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald sent a letter to Locke detailing the project's opponents, which range from the Sierra Club to local U.S. Forest Service officials. The project largely pitted conservationists and scientists against business interests who want to boost tourism.
"(The letter) didn't say anything about the hundreds of people, cities and counties and chambers of commerce that wanted it," Youngquist said Wednesday evening. "The Sierra Club must have influenced the governor and the secretary of transportation."
"I'm really pleased that the governor agreed with our arguments," said Susan Saul, who is among environmentalists that have waged a "No More Roads at Mount St. Helens" campaign.
She and Tom Knappenberger, spokesman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said tourist promoters should look to boost economies in ways that don't cut a road across terrain they contend is too environmentally sensitive and unstable.
"Let's drop some of these assumptions that the road is the answer" to saving the struggling economies in former timber towns such as Randle in eastern Lewis County, Saul said. "For $400,000, with the amount of people that live in Randle, we could just write them all a check."
But for Mark Smith, who runs Eco Park near the mountain and is president of the Mount St. Helens Preservation Society, the governor's veto is "an additional nail in the coffin of this federal white elephant that is Mount St. Helens."
Tourism at the volcano is waning, and Smith had hopes that economic studies would help revive it whether or not the effort led to extending the road across the monument.
Despite Locke's veto, neither opponents nor supporters would say that the monument road idea would never resurface, especially after a new governor takes Locke's place in January.
"I don't think it's over," Youngquist said. "New elected officials are going to come in five years from now and say … 'Why didn't these studies get done?' "
"We keep thinking we may have seen the last of it and then the project shows up again," Saul said. "We'll just have to continue to be alert and monitor places where this might pop up."
Mark Smith said whatever might be — might be too late for him.
"My park will go up for sale," he said. "I've wasted 10 years of my life trying to develop tourism and recreational business on this highway."