Editor’s note: This is the eighth story in our ongoing series marking the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Stories appear in a collection on TDN.com as they appear in print and online.
Generations of Southwest Washington residents have spent summer nights at Spirit Lake, telling stories around crackling campfires, gazing at the night sky and listening for Sasquatch. Many got their first, and best, exposure to nature there.
But it all vanished 40 years ago when Mount St. Helens erupted. And since then, many who remember the beauty of the Spirit Lake basin have wondered: When can we go back and enjoy it the way we used to?
The simple answer is short: Not anytime soon.
At its core, the yearning reflects larger questions: Just how much access should the public have to public land? Could there be more campgrounds, hotels, horse camps or other recreational facilities in the area? And can these amenities co-exist with scientific research?
Debate about these questions began even as the land still steamed after Mount St. Helens left it for dead on May 18, 1980. And it has continued since 1982, when Congress created the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, assigning it a dual and potentially conflicting purpose: To save the area for public enjoyment and scientific study.
Visitor Centers, sno-parks and more than 200 miles of trails dot the area, which is a mecca for anyone interested in science, scenery and ecology. But some Cowlitz County leaders still see untapped tourism potential tied up in land that has been largely dedicated to research, and they want more access for traditional outdoor recreation, such as boating, fishing and hunting.
The public will soon get a chance to voice its opinions on this matter.
Sue Ripp, public affairs officer for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said the U.S. Forest Service will ask the community about possible ways to add recreation opportunities as part of the 40th anniversary of the eruption.
“We recognize outdoor experiences are the primary way that most people connect to their national forests,” she said. “(We) believe these opportunities are increasingly vital to the economies of local communities and are valued for the social and health benefits they provide, and for encouraging citizen stewardship, and as a means of retaining our relevance as an agency. We also recognize we can’t be all things to all people in all places.”
Greg Drew, whose family has operated a grocery store in Toutle for more than eight decades, said he understands the need to set aside parts of the monument for research.
“But they don’t need a whole damn mountain,” he said.
Beginning shortly after the eruption, Drew said he pushed for ways to revive some of the tourism potential in the area. He formed a community group and applied for grants, but the efforts never went anywhere.
Drew envisions RV parks, horse camps and sledding areas.
His grocery store often is the last fuel stop for travelers on their way to Johnston Ridge Observatory, where Spirit Lake Memorial Highway dead-ends. He’d like to see the highway “punched through” to either Windy Ridge or U.S. Highway 12, which could create an east-west transit through the area and connect it with Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and the Columbia River Gorge.
That idea has been controversial, but Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber supports it. His long-term goal is to create a loop road so tourists could keep moving through and come down the south side to Ape Caves and the debris flow deposits in the Muddy River.
Weber, who was a Longview City Councilman at the time of the 1980 eruption, said he remembers a tourism expert telling the community it should avoid dead-end roads because tourists don’t like to backtrack.
“His predictions have turned out,” Weber said. “That dead end road is a deterrent for tourists.”
However, extending that road would be prohibitively expensive to build and maintain, said Tom Paulu, a former TDN reporter who covered the outdoors for decades before retiring in 2016.
Instead, the Forest Service should do more to maintain the roads it already has and add more hiking trails and campgrounds, Paulu said. There are some overnight spots right now that only researchers or guided tours can use.
“To me, it’s a bit of elitism that certain people get to use parts of the mountain, but not the general public,” he said.
Susan Saul, a conservationist who was instrumental in lobbying for creation of the national monument, said she likes the current balance of public access and protected research areas.
“(After the eruption), I had this vision that this was going to be a place of tremendous value and interest watching nature recover from a volcanic eruption,” she said. “Mount St. Helens has given us that laboratory to understand how that happens.”
The Forest Service is underfunded, she said, so instead of adding more amenities, the focus should be on maintaining the existing roads and trails.
“I don’t see a big problem where people are being denied access,” she said. “They may not be able to access every square inch, but there’s certainly the opportunity if you want to get out and hike.”
A lack of overnight facilities could explain why about 300,000 people visit Mount St. Helens annually, whereas Mount Rainier gets roughly 2 million visitors, Weber said.
The county is supporting the Mount St. Helens Institute’s efforts to expand outdoor education programs at the Coldwater Tourist Center to host kids for a week and possibly add an RV park, Weber said. The Institute is seeking funding for a feasibility study to look at how much the program would cost.
The greatest obstacle, Drew said, is a lack of flexibility and cooperation between the Forest Service, private landowners such as Weyerhaeuser Co., and the local community.
“We really don’t have a say,” he said of the local community. “They might say we hold meetings and get input. That’s a farce.”
Ripp said the Forest Service sought 2020 calendar event proposals for new and existing recreation opportunities such as group kayak floats, snowmobile or ski events, endurance races, a hike-a-thon fundraiser, horse competitions, and bike races.
The Forest Service has expanded recreation opportunities by converting some trails to include mountain bike use and adding new hiking trails on the south side of the monument and on the north side to view Crater Glacier, she added. The agency also installed new toilets at Lower Falls and will install toilets at Ape Caves, Trail of Two Forests, Kalama Horse Camp and Marble Mountain this year.
In addition, the Forest Service in 2018 conducted an analysis of 210 recreation sites, including campgrounds, picnic areas, visitor information sites, trailheads and cabin rentals. The information was then compiled in a draft program to guide work at the monument for the next six years.
And this year, the Forest Service is looking at how to improve its existing trail system, she said.
Alice Dietz, who served as a liaison between the Forest Service and the Cowlitz Economic Development Council in 2012, said she’s seen “great strides” in communication between the two groups. For example, the Mount St. Helens Institute developed overnight learning programs at the Coldwater Science and Learning Center. A local mountain biking group gets to use the Coldwater Lake trails in exchange for maintaining them. And the Kelso Rotary and local businesses partnered to hold a concert series at the mountain.
“USFS partnering with agencies such as CEDC is a sign that they realize the importance and potential for growth these relationships could bring to our economy and community,” she said. “I believe that continuing to involve and work with the community who experienced the impacts of the eruption, is a smart move.”
Jim Gawel, a University of Washington-Tacoma professor who studies the log mat at Spirit Lake, said it’s important to both protect the lake for research and to get the general public invested in it, too. The public now is not allowed on the lake to prevent fishing, creation of unauthorized trails and introduction of new species.
“But it doesn’t do any good to keep people out completely,” he said. “There’s a way to invest in this place appropriately.”
If people can access the protected areas in a manageable way, they will become personally invested in protecting the area and will self-police others who seek to damage the area, he said.
Weber said he doesn’t mind setting aside Spirit Lake for research, but he’d like to allow small motorized boats on Coldwater Lake, which is about three miles long.
Drew said scientists should boon-tie some of the logs on Spirit Lake to continue to monitor how long they last, but then fishing should be allowed on the rest of the lake.
Years ago, there was a proposal to allow a handful of fishermen to use Spirit Lake, similar to the hiking permit system, Paulu said. He supports the idea but didn’t think it would ever go anywhere. “The politics are too hard,” he said. The Forest Service is research-oriented and there is “the legitimate concern that if you allow more people, some are going to goof up.”
Someday the area may transition into more recreation, Paulu said, but “it will be a slow process.”
“I don’t see anything changing very soon, but it might come back,” he said. “One thing we’ve seen during this (COVID-19) pandemic is that people get antsy if they’re not able to go outside and recreate.”
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