U.S. Forest Service officials have, at least temporarily, backed down from a plan that would cut an access road through the Pumice Plain on Mount St. Helens — a rare and productive scientific research site.
“I would like to take some time to further analyze impacts to ongoing and future research on the Pumice Plain, complete deeper assessments on transportation options, and clarify alignment with legislation, the Comprehensive Plan, and the National Academies of Science consensus study report recommendations,” wrote Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Ranger Rebecca Hoffman, in a letter dated March 28.
Hoffman’s directive withdraws the decision notice that authorized the road project. The Forest Service has not publicly updated that development on the project website. Her letter also said she would work toward creating a group of interested parties “to build relationships and increase communication going forward.”
“It’s a big sigh of relief for me,” said Dr. Carri LeRoy, an associate professor at The Evergreen State College, who has been doing field work on the Pumice Plain since 2015. “This is such a unique landscape, and let’s not do anything that does damage to it. … To have a road construction project through the middle of it would have been pretty devastating. We were finally able to convince some of the upper management at the Monument that it really is a unique place and it’s worth protecting.”
The Pumice Plain is a 6-square mile area that was enveloped in ash during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. It’s one of the few places on Earth where scientists can watch nature return — with no human influence — to a place that had been stripped clean of life. There are currently 33 active research studies in the area, looking at things like stream formation and the return of plants and animals.
According to researchers, the proposed 3-mile road would irreparably compromise their work. It would take out vegetation, leading to erosion, which would result in sediment in the streams that feed into Spirit Lake. Vehicle tires could track in the seeds of foreign plants. Even small changes could undermine the chance to watch natural forces working uninterrupted.
“The lack of recognition of the significance of all the research going on there, and the impacts that their activity would have on that research, the (Forest Service) just downplayed it to themselves because they felt it was important to get this (road),” said Susan Saul, a longtime leader in conservation efforts at St. Helens. “They didn’t talk to the scientists, and that should have been one of their first points of contact when they started this planning process.”
The purpose of the road is one that even detractors acknowledge is important. It’s an access route to the Spirit Lake Tunnel, which helps drain the lake, after its natural outlet was blocked by eruption debris. The tunnel serves an important purpose. Without it, rising lake levels could overwhelm the debris barrier, leading to massive flooding all the way to Interstate 5.
Transportation to the tunnel has long been done with helicopters. But now, the Forest Service wants to drill core samples to inspect the composition and stability of the debris blockage. It has argued that building a road is the best way to allow equipment and workers to have consistent access to the site. Conservationists and scientists have countered that the agency has not fully explored alternate options, including the continued use of helicopters.
Hoffman and a Forest Service spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
Nicole Budine, policy and campaign manager with the Cascade Forest Conservancy, is among those who have sought to stop the road.
“We’re waiting to see what happens, but we’re happy that their current proposal with their problematic environmental analysis is not moving forward,” she said. “We felt that there was a problem with this entire process, with this being kind of rushed and not very transparent.”
According to Saul, Forest Service officials met with stakeholders who had filed objections to the project on March 7, a meeting that produced no agreement but clarified to the feds the issues raised by the group.
“That was one of the big takeaways (the Forest Service) got from the objection resolution meeting, was they had not done a good job of communicating,” said Saul. “They just couldn’t go forward, because they were likely to get litigated and that would delay everything even longer than pulling back the draft decision.”
She cautioned that the road issue is likely not dead, just delayed as the Forest Service looks at alternative ways to move forward. The credit for the reprieve, she said, belongs to the many scientists who spoke up about the effect the road would have on their work, taking on the potentially uncomfortable role of activists.
“They really needed to participate, because it’s their research, their careers, their profession that was at risk,” Saul said. “That was the really critical thing, that the scientists were willing to engage in a process that they don’t really know and don’t participate in every day.”
LeRoy, who is studying the development of four streams created in the aftermath of the eruption — streams which the proposed road would have cut across — said the withdrawal of the proposal will at least allow her to complete the grant funding cycle she’s currently on.
“It’s a 2-year grant, and it will be wrapping up at the end of next summer,” she said. “I’ll be able to get out there and do field research, and I won’t have to worry about road construction crews. … It’s great for this one project that has funding. There’s concern if they bring the topic back up.”
For now, Budine said, stakeholders are cautiously optimistic that future proposals will be made with more care.
“It’s a smart long-term decision for the Forest Service to move more slowly in their management of Spirit Lake,” she said. “We’re happy to see that there won’t be a road across the most sensitive part of the Mount St. Helens landscape. I imagine the scientists who have been doing decades of research on that landscape are also relieved.”