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Yielding to opposition from researchers and conservationists, the U.S. Forest Service is temporarily delaying its plan to re-establish a primitive road to Spirit Lake to conduct test drilling and service the lake’s drainage tunnel.

The decision will indefinitely delay a safety assessment of the debris blockage holding back Spirit Lake, disappointing some Cowlitz County officials.

According to an April 9 letter, the agency is withdrawing its draft decision notice and finding of no significant environmental impact for the project, according to conservationists who have opposed the road project. Forest Service spokeswoman Sue Ripp on Friday confirmed that the agency will conduct additional analysis and public comment efforts again later this summer and fall.

The delay will enable the Forest Service to further study the potential impact that road construction could have on the research plots and the ecological recovery of the area at the heart of the Mount St. Helens blast zone, Ripp said.

Conservationists and researchers fear road construction would disturb some of the 33 research projects covering hundreds of acres on the south shore of Spirit Lake and which are tracking the return of life.

“I think the Forest Service, when they got all the objections from everyone, got the message loud and clear — that they had not done enough analysis into how the project would affect research and the environment,” Vancouver-based conservationist Susan Saul told The Daily News by email Friday.

Saul, who was a key advocate for creating the National Monument, added that the Forest Service “still needs to get that drill data, but maybe they can find a better way to get it without affecting research. It’s good that they realized ... all of the scientists, conservationists and community were unified in saying the decision was not good.”

Forest Service officials say the road is necessary to haul in 30,000-pound drill rigs to bore exploratory holes in the volcanic debris blockage that dammed Spirit Lake on May 18, 1980. The blockage has not been re-evaluated since the early 1980s, when geologists concluded that the debris dam would fail if the lake continued to rise and would cause catastrophic flooding along the Toutle, lower Cowlitz and Columbia rivers.

In addition to assessing the blockage’s stability, officials are searching for an alternative outlet for the lake. The drainage tunnel the Corps of Engineers cut in 1985 to stabilize the lake level needs major work to reinforce a section of the 11-foot-wide tunnel that passes through a fault zone.

Researchers have chastised the Forest Service of whipping up a crisis and for not considering alternatives, such as using helicopters to haul in equipment.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Joe Gardner acknowledged that no crisis is at hand. Nevertheless, he said Friday, the delay “is disappointing. Getting information about the blockage is vital to making decisions” affecting the safety of downstream communities.”

The debris blockage, though often referred to as a dam, is more like a broad mass of debris that is made up of boulders, sand and pumice. But it’s exact composition, the layering of deposits and other factors affecting its stability — such as the nature of the water table — are unknown. That’s why a panel of National Academies of Science recommended last year that the blockage needs an assessment.

The area in question is within the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established in 1982 to preserve the area for scientific study and public enjoyment. However, the legislation creating the area allows work related to public safety to take place in the area.

The proposed road would generally follow the course of a road the Corps of Engineers used to set up and maintain a barge-based operation to pump water out of Spirit Lake while the drainage tunnel was under construction.

Reporter Mallory Gruben contributed to this report.

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Contact City Editor Andre Stepankowsky at 360-577-2520.

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