On May 18, 1980, my first day as a recreation planner for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest was almost my last. That morning, I was exploring my new territory a few miles west of the summit of Mount St. Helens when the north face of the mountain collapsed, triggering the largest volcanic eruption in U.S. history. If I’d been a few hundred yards closer to the mountain, I’d have been the 58th person killed by the volcano that sunny Sunday morning.
Since then, as my career in recreation planning has taken me throughout the United States and to Central and South America, I’ve come back to Mount St. Helens every few years to make a photographic record of the landscape’s recovery. Nature has proved to be amazingly resilient. I’ve watched the land around the volcano transition from a stark and sublime gray to a gorgeous, gentle green. But I’ve also watched the human management of the area around the volcano steadily deteriorate. Conservation groups and concerned individuals in southwest Washington have been talking about the possibility of transferring management of the volcano to the National Park Service. It’s time for the public and their elected officials to determine Mount St. Helens’ future.
In 1982, a collaborative effort by conservationists, scientists, politicians and private landowners resulted in the establishment of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which will be celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year. Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the monument was a unique creation. The founding legislation directed the Forest Service to “protect the geologic, ecologic, and cultural resources” of the monument, “allowing geologic forces and ecological succession to continue substantially unimpeded.” The intent was to allow scientists, conservationists, and other visitors to the mountain to witness and document the landscape’s renewal while experiencing an area unlike any in the world.
When the monument was established, I was worried that the Forest Service was promising a level of development and scale of interpretive facilities that it would not be able to maintain. The Forest Service has a tradition of do-it-yourself recreation in rustic areas or in dispersed sites with little development. It has little experience with large visitor centers or the management of concentrated groups of people. It oversees millions of acres of land on a budget that has been shrinking, in real terms, for half a century.
The Forest Service maintained that it could create a monument with high-quality facilities and the same levels of public service provided by the National Park Service. It said that it would fund the operations and maintenance of the monument into the future and take pride in providing quality outdoor reaction. The $11.5 million Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center opened with fanfare in 1993, and the $8.7 million David Johnston Observatory, named after the U.S. Geological Survey scientist who was killed while monitoring the volcano, opened three years later.
Last August, I returned to Mount St. Helens to continue a series of photographs I’ve been taking at particular locations in the years since the eruption. As I turned off Interstate 5 onto the Spirit Lake Highway, I saw that the businesses serving tourists that opened after the creation of the monument are long gone. In the 1980s, more than a million people visited the Gifford Pinchot National Forest every year, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy. By 2006, visitation to the monument fell to only about 700,000 visitors, and businesses began to fail. By 2016, visitation had crashed to about 180,000 — barely a quarter of what it was a decade before. Recreational use of Mount St. Helens today is less than it was in the years before the eruption.
I drove to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, which closed in 2007 due to lack of funding just 14 years after it opened. The nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute has been valiantly laboring to maintain the building and recently signed a 30-year lease with the Forest Service to convert it into an outdoor learning center, but the institute knows that it will need to look beyond the Forest Service to fund its plans.
When I drove on to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, closed due to the pandemic, the parking lot contained only about two dozen cars, even though I knew that Mount Rainier National Park, just 50 miles to the north, was swarming with visitors. The Johnston Ridge Observatory does not have any food facilities, and the nearest camping is miles away and outside of the monument, so visitation to the facility has always been less than was expected. The local economy suffers as a result. Using the methodology applied to the creation of White Sands National Park in New Mexico, a national park would contribute 15 times more to the economy of southwest Washington than the monument does.
As I hiked into the monument, I discovered that trails are decaying to the point of being unsafe because of lack of maintenance. Today, much of the trail maintenance is being done by volunteers rather than the Forest Service. Culverts are clogged with debris. Interpretive signs are barely legible or missing. Much of what was built is rotting and rusting away. Human-created infrastructure does not renew itself; it must be cared for.
During my time on the mountain last summer, I never saw a single ranger in the field. I saw dozens of RVs parked in locations supposedly closed for camping, but since there were no rangers, people did as they wished. I found myself helping visitors who were lost or had run out of gas or wondering what they were looking at since there was no one to help them.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was envisioned as providing outstanding educational and interpretive opportunities with an infrastructure that could support public enjoyment. Instead, the Forest Service has reduced funding, closed facilities, limited hours of service, and allowed buildings, roads, trails and programs to deteriorate.
Various groups have studied whether Mount St. Helens would be better off as a national park. In 2009, a citizens advisory committee recommended that the Forest Service retain management of the monument, partly because a national park cannot allow some activities, such as biking or walking with dogs on trails, which can occur in national forests. But it also recommended major changes in the monument’s management, including annual meetings of scientists and the public to provide input and a line item in the national portion of the Forest Service budget to ensure adequate funding.
In 2012, a group of graduate students from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance investigated the Forest Service’s response to the advisory committee report. Of 35 recommendations, the Forest Service possibly accomplished 11. The recommendations for citizen involvement and national funding were ignored. The group concluded that the monument lacks a long-term vision and relies heavily on its nonprofit partnership due to limited staff and funding.
In 2019, the Forest Service carried out a major analysis of the recreation program within the monument and proposed to further decommission interpretive and recreation sites and reduce recreation opportunities. Recently, the title of monument manager has been changed back to district ranger, reflecting how the agency now views the monument. Based on conversations I’ve had with former colleagues, the Forest Service now views the monument as a money pit and would prefer that it be transferred to the Park Service.
The national monument was meant to be a cultural creation in partnership with the Earth. This partnership gave nature the freedom to change unconstrained by the consumptive needs of society. In exchange, society agreed to maintain the facilities and provide the day-to-day management to protect a local, national and global resource. If fulfilled, this partnership would have created a place of beauty and inspiration for present and future generations.
There is no hopeful future for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Forest Service hands. On the contrary, the Forest Service has demonstrated that it is no longer and may never have been the proper steward of this majestic part of our natural heritage. Local conservation groups have begun considering the pros and cons of transferring the volcano’s management from the Forest Service to the Park Service. To me, the answer is obvious. Mount St. Helens should become what it deserves to be — a national park.