In the summer of 1981, two ecologists were walking across an empty expanse of land north of Mount St. Helens. The mountain had erupted the year before, leveling more than 200 square miles of forest, and the pair was searching for signs of life in the area called the Pumice Plain. So far they had found none, but then up ahead they saw a single purple flower — a prairie lupine. Stunned, they set up a research plot around it. Over the years, they watched more lupines join the small plant, and then other wildflowers, insects, spiders, mice. Once bleached and barren, the Pumice Plain refilled with color.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Forest Service decided to build a road over the plot and the descendants of that first lupine.
To do so would be a terrible mistake. Hike over the Pumice Plain and you are witness to the most famous natural experiment in the Pacific Northwest — one that is still unfolding on a grand scale. But that experiment is in peril. The Forest Service, which manages the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, approved a proposal to send a road straight through its most fragile part. In response, scientists and environmental groups have filed suit to halt the project. They say the agency’s plans fail to account for the landscape’s unique scientific value.
The reason the Forest Service says it needs a road is Spirit Lake. When the mountain’s summit collapsed on May 18, 1980, tons of debris blocked the lake’s natural outlet to the North Fork Toutle River. Soon after, rain and snowmelt led the lake to rise. Officials realized it could overtop the debris dam and unleash a devastating mudflow on towns downstream.
To prevent this, engineers bored a tunnel to link Spirit Lake to the river. But the 1.6-mile-long tunnel passes through a geologically unstable ridge. In 2017, a government panel recommended building a second outlet. A likely route lies through the debris blockage, but its geology is poorly understood.
Forest Service officials say they have to drill into the debris blockage to study it. Separately, they also want to replace the intake gate for the Spirit Lake tunnel. To complete both projects, they want a road. Trucks would haul heavy equipment from Windy Ridge more than three miles across the Pumice Plain. Work crews would then drive in and out every day for the next several years — nearly 2,000 vehicle passes per summer over ground that has not felt a rubber tire for almost four decades.
The research community at Mount St. Helens is appalled. The Pumice Plain is a landscape unlike anywhere else in the world. Although it makes up less than 3% of the monument’s total land area, it hosts some 70% of all active studies, tracking a biological community as it rebuilds itself from nothing.
The Forest Service argues that only a few plots would be destroyed, but the agency is missing the forest for the trees, or their lack. Plots are not the point. A road — even a temporary one — is an existential threat. Slap a road across the Pumice Plain, and its nature changes in fundamental and irreversible ways. Roads are conduits not just for trucks, but also invasive species and other types of human disturbance. At the same time, they are barriers, slashing through streams and wetlands, altering watersheds in their entirety. These impacts reach far beyond a road’s mere physical footprint.
The Forest Service seems not to have grasped this. Early planning documents asserted the roadbed “would return to baseline” within a few years of the project’s completion. This claim makes no sense. What baseline do they mean? Can the agency compel the mountain to erupt again and create the same unique landscape?
More than that, the Forest Service has not dealt with the public forthrightly throughout the planning process. Notice of the project, which the agency had been developing for several months, was made to the public right before the holidays, and then relevant staff went on vacation. The public comment period was also kept as short as possible. (Even so, the vast majority of commenters opposed the project.) In presentations and news releases, officials have beat the drum of imminent catastrophe. But while risk to towns downriver is significant, the data show it is also remote. The agency has done its best to make an event that is statistically unlikely sound inevitable.
It was in part for these reasons that the Western Environmental Law Center sued the agency in federal court in Tacoma, seeking to block the project in its current form. Joining it is a suite of environmental groups — the Cascade Forest Conservancy, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and others — and scientists from area universities who study Mount St. Helens. In its eagerness for a road, this coalition alleges, the Forest Service has minimized or ignored the full scope of its consequences, running afoul of environmental law.
No one disputes that the Forest Service must manage Spirit Lake with the safety of Toutle, Castle Rock and other towns in mind. But the road as conceived is shortsighted in the extreme. The Forest Service needs to consider other ways to move equipment and workers that would be less harmful both to the land and the research it supports. Perhaps the project would take longer, but contrary to the agency’s claims, time is not of the essence here. What is most important is to make sure the work is done right, better balancing dual mandates of public safety and research.
Research, after all, is central to the monument. Congress created it in 1982 to serve as a place for “geologic forces and ecological succession to continue substantially unimpeded.” In this the Pumice Plain has a distinguished scientific lineage. The research program at Mount St. Helens is a model for long-term projects all over the world. Studies here changed how ecologists think about the ways plants and animals respond to massive disturbance. It informed forest management throughout the region. Younger scientists are continuing that work, promising new insights.
Since the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens has become famous for the innovative and creative thought it inspires. Where some saw a lifeless wasteland, others saw a singular opportunity to watch and celebrate all the surprising ways life comes back after seeming total devastation. The Forest Service supported those efforts then. At that first plot around the original lupine, the agency even put up a commemorative sign. In front of it lies Spirit Lake. Behind it looms the mountain. Around it, flowers and grasses dance in the wind. Its text is hard to read after years of exposure to rain, sun and snow, but if you squint you can make out a couple of lines at the top, appealing to those passing by:
Do Not Disturb PLEASE