Mount St. Helens

Leaders across government, tribes, landowners and non-profits want a central entity to coordinate safety and environmental concerns surrounding the Spirit Lake — Toutle River system, according to a “situation report” study presented Wednesday to many of the region’s key players at the Cowlitz County Historical Museum.

The Seattle-based Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of Washington State University and the University of Washington, authored the report, basing it on interviews with 51 people from nearly 20 different levels of government as well as private interests.

Of those interviewed, only one or two opposed the idea of a new entity or consortium made up of those agencies managing the area’s safety concerns, said Chris Page, the Ruckelshaus project leader.

About 50 people, nearly all of them representing agencies involved with the volcano, attended the meeting.

And representatives from tribes and other groups present called on U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler to champion the concerns, which many said needed a shot in the arm of federal funding.

At least three major agencies — the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — would need to be on board for some kind of broad coalition to work, Page said.

The Center promotes collaboration between public, private, tribal, nonprofit and other groups on issues spanning land and natural resource use, transportation and health care.

It was asked to get involved in conflicts over Mount St. Helens after a 2017 National Academies of Science report, commissioned by the Forest Service, chastised agencies around the region for not working more collaboratively to address flooding challenges at Spirit Lake. It said decision-making should involve a broader array of groups and parties. It also emphasized the importance of thinking of Spirit Lake and the Toutle River as a system.

The May 18, 1980, eruption sundered Mount St. Helens’ peak, killing about 57 people directly and causing billions of dollars in damage.

But flooding risks persist nearly four decades later. The eruption blocked Spirit Lake’s natural outflow into the north fork Toutle River with hundreds of feet of volcanic muck. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a drainage tunnel to control the lake level in 1985, but this tunnel has run up expensive and complicated maintenance in recent years.

There is no imminent danger that the lake will rise to unsafe levels, which are about 35 feet higher than its current elevation. But federal scientists said such a breach could cause catastrophic flooding “unprecedented in the history of the United States” in the Toutle and Cowlitz valleys.

The Forest Service recently proposed re-establishing a 3-mile, 8-foot wide route from Windy Ridge to Spirit Lake so it can bring in heavy drilling rigs to the drainage tunnel and determine the safety of the lake’s debris blockage.

That proposal drew criticism from researchers and conservationists, who said the road could erode streams, introduce invasive species, and entice illegal recreational use of the area. The Forest Service said it needs that road to manage the lake and keep the public safe.

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