Guide to Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens is Not a National Park

The volcano’s unique status makes upkeep complicated.

By Allison Williams May 6, 2020

Trail work at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument near Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Once upon a time, the summit of Mount St. Helens was a railroad. Not actual train tracks, of course, but the top of the mountain was owned by Burlington Northern, passed down from the land grant given to the Northern Pacific Railroad back in the nineteenth century. Much of the forest around it was held by timber company Weyerhaeuser in 1980, meaning one of the state’s most potent symbols was once private property.

After the eruption, the devastated area clearly had much more worth as a scientific artifact than timber land, so the U.S. government traded with the two companies to partition a total of 110,000 acres, including the decapitated monolith. Congress created the first U.S. National Volcanic Monument in 1982. Unlike Mount Rainier to the north, it’s no national park overseen by the Department of the Interior; the Monument is under the U.S. Forest Service (in turn part of the Department of Agriculture).

The upshot—tugs of war between scientists, fishermen, campers, the tourist industry and more; in the 2000s, a committee that included U.S. senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray explored moving the mountain to the park service, but the Monument remained unchanged. Recreation restrictions remain (no camping, no dogs, almost no one allowed in the crater), even as the occasional fisherman vies for access to Spirit Lake.

Engineers in Spirit Lake Tunnel during an inspection in August 2019

There’s stuff in the monument you don’t see anywhere else in the Forest Service, says Angela Elam, deputy supervisor to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. For one thing, a 1.6-mile tunnel connects Spirit Lake to Toutle River, hastily built when the eruption blocked the natural outlet; without the 11-foot-wide channel draining water from the lake, overflow could cause flooding. But now it’s a 40-year-old piece of construction. “We don’t manage any other infrastructure anywhere else in our agency, and it’s an engineered work that has a lot of mechanics,” says Elam. This year the Forest Service will draft an upgrade plan for review.

And then there are all the visitor centers. At one time five different interpretive buildings dotted the 52-mile Spirit Lake Highway from I-5 to the mountain. The Johnston Ridge Observatory opened in 1997 at the mountain, rendering the four others basically obsolete; it's hard to get excited about anything else when comparing it to the Johnston Ridge view. So the USFS has turned over the Coldwater Visitor Center to the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute for outdoor school and other educational programs. “It has gorgeous views, and it’s built like a bunker,” says Elam, “and now it’s a science and learning center.” Students sleep in bunks that line old exhibit rooms, thrilling kids who might never experience sleepaway camp. Mount St. Helens always finds a way to reinvent itself.


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