Today, a coalition of scientists and conservationists challenged in federal court a U.S. Forest Service plan to build a road through the Pumice Plain, the blast zone of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, to assess the integrity of a natural dam on Spirit Lake created by the volcano’s eruption in 1980. The road would end dozens of irreplaceable scientific research projects, many dating back 40 years to just after the eruption, by destroying research plots and permanently changing the unique ecological conditions in the vicinity.
“Callous land managers are seeking to exercise dominion over the landscape at Mount St. Helens, but this landscape is more than just special, and more than just delicate,” said Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The Pumice Plain is teaching the world new things we couldn’t learn in any other way, in any other place, which is what Congress intended when it created the National Volcanic Monument. Prudent planning can achieve a win for everyone: to ensure public safety while preserving this scientific jewel and the future discoveries that require its continued existence.”
Nearly all aspects of terrestrial and aquatic ecology are under investigation at Mount St. Helens generally, and on the Pumice Plain and in Spirit Lake specifically. This research cannot be performed anywhere else, and could prove enormously beneficial to science, nature, and even to society. For example, researchers at Mount St. Helens are studying watershed creation and ecology; establishment and evolution of amphibian, fish, arthropod, mammalian, avian, algal, and plant assemblages; soil creation and development; mycorrhizal ecology; plant succession, including genesis and development of new plant communities; ecological role of floating woody debris on lake productivity; aquatic invasive species spread and ecological impact; and adaptation of a new rainbow trout population to changing conditions in Spirit Lake and its tributaries.
Many studies rely on a single plot at the location of the first known plant to establish on the Pumice Plain, which was found to host a previously unknown species of moth. The proposed route for the road would go directly though this plot, destroying it and forestalling the insights it would provide us about biodiversity and landscape regeneration.
“Insights from the scientists working at the monument inform ongoing restoration projects across Washington. Further understanding of these processes will be permanently destroyed if the proposed project is implemented as planned” said Becky Chaney, conservation chair of the Washington Native Plant Society. “The work is significant enough for WNPS to help fund the research through its grant program. The science on recovery and succession has resource and restoration applications to the conservation of native plants, to wildlife habitat recovery, and to my own work as a forest planning consultant.”
In addition, the project would build a road on top of the Truman Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in the Monument. This road would damage newly forming streams and watersheds, introduce invasive species, and severely detract from the experience of hikers on the only trail that connects public access from Johnston Ridge to Windy Ridge across the Pumice Plain.
The safety of residents downstream of Spirit Lake is extremely important, which is why thoughtful planning is essential. However, the Forest Service has not yet developed a comprehensive approach to ensuring the safety of downstream communities as well as protecting the internationally known research occurring at Mount St. Helens, and instead is piecemealing its management of this area. The Forest Service must achieve the shared goal of ensuring public safety while maintaining the Congressionally designated purpose of the monument: scientific study and research.
“Over the past four years, we have offered the Forest Service many alternatives to this project that protect public safety, preserve research plots on the Pumice Plain, and mitigate environmental impacts. Instead, the agency is pushing this project forward without adequate environmental analysis, or consideration of the permanent impacts the construction of a road will have on this incredible landscape,” said Lucy Brookham, Policy Manager for the Cascade Forest Conservancy. “Our members will see 40 years of research destroyed, recreation in a no-longer roadless landscape permanently altered, as well as the progress of newly forming wildlife, watersheds, and plant species halted in their tracks.”
Maps of proposed road, drilling area, and trails available here.
Photos for media use (captions on Flickr are not very accurate):
A 2017 study found that we would have weeks if not much longer to alert and evacuate downstream communities should Lake levels rise precipitously without an outlet.
2018 National Academy of Sciences report recommending that the Forest Service conduct an environmental analysis in an environmental impact statement that looks at options/alternatives and addresses the need for a more permanent lake solution