Windy Ridge at Mount St. Helens

Spirit Lake reflects its surrounding hills as seen from Forest Road 99 in May 2015. 

Cowlitz County Commissioners are urging the U.S. Forest Service to resume "an important public safety project" in re-establishing dirt road access to Spirit Lake.

The Forest Service in April delayed its plan to re-establish a 3-mile, 8-foot-wide route from Windy Ridge to the southwest shore of Spirit Lake after opposition from researchers and conservationists.

The commissioners on Tuesday approved sending letters to Forest Service and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument officials asking them to "refrain from further delay" on the project.

The Forest Service needs the road to bring in 30,000-pound drilling rigs to collect data to determine the safety of the debris blockage holding back Spirit Lake.

The blockage has not been evaluated since the early 1980s, when geologists concluded that the debris dam would fail if the lake continued to rise and would cause catastrophic flooding along the Toutle, lower Cowlitz and Columbia rivers.

Conservationists and researchers fear road construction would disturb some of the research projects covering hundreds of acres on the pumice plain. They also argue the road could lead to increased illegal use of the area.

The commissioners' letter said while the board has a "deep appreciation" for research, the board's job is to speak in favor of the project for the safety of constituents living below the lake.

"While we can certainly sympathize with any impact the project may have to studies in the area, we can hardly side with those concerns over the consequences of not being able to access the lake, understand the debris blockage and maintain long-term safe lake levels," the letter said.

A flood of the lake breaking the debris blockage could generate 2.4 billion cubic yards of sediment to downstream communities, producing a catastrophic event on par with the 1980s eruption, according to the letter.

"Some objections point out that no crisis exists today and so no action is needed," the letter said. "(But) the time to act is now. We need to be prepared before a crisis arrives in the wet winter months ahead. The Forest Service can hardly be expected to build an access road in the middle of a severe weather or seismic event."

The proposed road would generally follow the course of a road the Corps of Engineers used to set up and maintain a barge-based operation to pump water out of Spirit Lake while a drainage tunnel built to stabilize the lake level was under construction in the 1980s.

The Forest Service is analyzing alternatives for the project and plans to have an updated environmental assessment released for public comment sometime this month, according to its website.

 

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