Rebecca Hoffman is no stranger to the outdoors. She’s worked in the forest service for 19 years across Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and now Washington.
But on a sunny, windswept day atop Johnston Ridge Observatory, she described the new challenges she faces as the new head ranger of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
“Being from Colorado, I heard and read quite a bit about it,” Hoffman said Thursday. “But really being here ... it’s still an active volcano, and it’s still shifting and moving. There’s some pretty complex issues and challenges on the monument. ... You don’t have an active volcano in very many places.”
Mount St. Helens’ unique landscape makes it attractive for recreation and research, and feats of engineering after the mountain’s 1980 eruption bring difficult maintenance requirements.
Chief among them is the Spirit Lake tunnel, built in 1985 to keep Spirit Lake from overflowing and flooding the Toutle River Valley. The eruption lifted the lake by about 200 feet with debris and blocked its natural drainage. The 35-year-old, 1.6-mile tunnel requires constant and expensive upkeep and has tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs, according to the Forest Service website.
Mudslides blew away bridges and covered towns when the volcano erupted, and the tunnel is key to holding back another potential disaster.
“It is an aging infrastructure, and it costs a significant amount of money to manage that tunnel,” Hoffman said. “They’re doing research on what that blockage is doing. Is it shifting? Is it flooding? The pumice plain is pretty active.”
The monument, designated by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 after the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, covers about 170 square miles of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest from Riffe Lake to Cougar.
Hoffman took over in early September, replacing previous head ranger Tedd Huffman.
In the last month, Hoffman’s spent most of her time learning about the monument and meeting those involved in maintaining it. She works as a sort of conduit between the lawmakers, scientists, tourists, engineers, rangers and nearby residents who are affected by the volcano.
Hoffman, 45, a native of rural Wyoming and Colorado, has 19 years of experience in the Forest Service. But she started out as a criminal justice major at Montana State University.
“I wanted to be a crime scene investigator before it was ever on TV,” Hoffman said, “(but) I realized doing that would put me always in big cities.”
So she transferred to Colorado State to pursue her passion for the outdoors, majoring in natural resources. Her first permanent Forest Service job in 1999 took her to the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. She spent another eight years in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, before spending the last eight years at Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, where she oversaw recreation, archaeology, and partnership programs.
She enjoyed the job, but the forest’s close proximity to Phoenix again left her pining for a more rugged, mountainous workplace — which brought her to the Pacific Northwest, where she now manages a variety of projects around the Mount St. Helens monument.
Some of those projects point to the natural regrowth of Mount St. Helen’s foothills, which are often referred to as a “moonscape” after the eruption knocked down trees and killed much of the local flora and fauna. New tree growth is starting to block the views from some of the lookouts that were built after the eruption, Hoffman said, so they’re considering removing some of those lookouts.
Hoffman said her main goal is to work with the forest service and the community around Mount St. Helens to prepare for the mountain’s future.
“It’s been 38 years. So what will the next 38 years look like? Or the next 50 years, or 100 years?”