When Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted on 18 May 1980, the initial explosion blew sideways, creating a nearly 600-square-kilometer blast zone—and what has become a prized ecological research area. Dozens of groups have tracked life’s reemergence there, one lupine and ladybug at a time. Now, many of those research projects may be endangered. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages the land, issued a decision to build a road stretching through the heart of the research area to the banks of Spirit Lake, 5 kilometers northeast of the crater. The agency says the road will service a tunnel that drains the lake to prevent a catastrophic flood, a threat to tens of thousands of people in the valley below.
The USFS decision has set off protests from scientists, including a lawsuit aimed at preventing the road’s construction and charges that the agency failed to consult with researchers. “We absolutely recognize the public safety issue,” says John Bishop, a botanist at Washington State University, Vancouver, who has been working for 31 years in the blast zone, designated a national monument in 1982 in part to encourage long-term ecological research. But, he says, “We think we can protect public safety and protect the heart of the monument. We’ve got to do both.”
When the eruption occurred, the north side of the mountain gave way, producing the largest landslide ever recorded. The avalanche of debris rushed into 890-hectare Spirit Lake, raising its water level by 60 meters and damming the lake’s natural outflow. The lake continued to rise, and officials worried it could cause the debris dam to give way, inundating downstream communities and an estimated $3.65 billion in property, including ports on the Columbia River. In 1985, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a 2.25-kilometer tunnel through the debris dam to allow the lake to drain into nearby Coldwater Creek. But seismic activity has repeatedly damaged the tunnel, requiring repairs.
On 16 March, Eric Veach, USFS supervisor for the region, released a “notice of decision” saying “the current risk situation at Spirit Lake is unacceptable and action is required.” The best option, Veach announced, is to build a 5.5-kilometer-long temporary road from an existing road across the blast zone, known as the Pumice Plain, to Spirit Lake. The road will allow the agency to bring in heavy equipment needed to repair the tunnel, replace a damaged gate that regulates the outgoing water flow, and carry out geological drilling studies of the long-term stability of the debris dam.
Carri LeRoy, an ecologist at Evergreen State University, Olympia, isn’t convinced about the urgency. “They argue it’s an emergency,” she says. But she and others say USFS could continue its practice of flying repair equipment in on helicopters to maintain the tunnel. “There is no imminent threat.”
However, the road’s impact on research would be immediate, says Susan Jane Brown, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court of Washington against USFS on behalf of three scientists and four conservation groups. Pumice Plain is home to 992 research plots, investigating how birds, amphibians, insects, and plants recolonized the shattered landscape. “It is a unique opportunity to look at long-term changes after a massive disturbance,” says James Gawel, an environmental chemist at the University of Washington, Tacoma, who has worked on the area since 2005.
The road would cut through 25 of the research plots, and USFS says it will directly affect about 4% of the total research area. But LeRoy calls that “a gross oversimplification.” The road would also cut across at least eight streams formed since the eruption, which drain into Spirit Lake. As a result, it would also impact everything downstream, including the lake, possibly introducing invasive species. “The impact would be massive,” Bishop says. “If you want to study the reestablishment of [native] life, that will be lost.” LeRoy, who studies the evolution of the newly formed streams, agrees: “There will be no point in studying there anymore.”
Veach acknowledges the road would have downsides for science, writing in his decision that the project “reflects a balance between public safety concerns and effects to ongoing research.” USFS considered other options, including a shorter road. But it would have required building a new parking lot for trucks and equipment on the lake, adding to the project’s ecological footprint. It would also have relied more heavily on helicopters and boats to access repair and drilling sites. The road now planned would extend to a staging site used decades ago for tunnel construction.
USFS’s road doesn’t represent a final plan for draining Spirit Lake. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine laid out options for a long-term fix, including adding a second tunnel and carving a large channel through the debris dam. The report emphasized the need to include voices of all stakeholders, such as scientists, government agencies, and downstream residents. With the intermediate USFS plan, scientists lament that they have largely been ignored. In April 2020, USFS had issued a finding that the road would have “no significant impact” on local ecology, prompting letters from scientists. Last month’s decision dismissed those complaints.
“There has been no public assessment of the different options,” Bishop says. He favors continuing to use helicopters to service the tunnel and gate. Gawel agrees: “People fly in drilling equipment to other remote locations all the time. They are building a road only to make it cheap and easy.” But Veach’s decision noted the helicopter option would pose delays for repairs, as well as risks for crews. USFS declined to make Veach or other personnel available for interviews.
Construction will begin this spring, USFS says. But Brown is hoping the agency will hold off and work with scientists and other stakeholders to come up with other options. Barring that, she says she will file an injunction to block the road’s construction.
USFS’s announcement may actually make addressing the Spirit Lake threat more difficult by triggering a lawsuit and years of delays, says Robin Gregory, an environmental decision scientist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. “That’s exactly what you don’t want.”