The Pumice Plain on Mount St. Helens is one of the most unique places on Earth, a 6 square mile landscape that was buried in ash during the mountain’s 1980 eruption, where almost no trace of human influence remains.
For that reason, it’s proved fertile ground for scientists, where researchers of many disciplines have spent the nearly four decades since the eruption literally watching nature run its course. The formation of streams, the return of plants and animals all are the subject of ongoing studies in this singular environment. Currently, 33 active research studies are taking place on the Pumice Plain.
“It can’t be overstated just how useful having something like this is,” said Dr. Jim Gawel, associate professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
Gawel has been conducting research at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument since 2008, studying how changes in the surrounding landscape affect productivity at Spirit Lake, looking at things like nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Those changes and their subsequent effects have all been wholly natural — but maybe not for long.
The U.S. Forest Service has proposed building a road through the Pumice Plain, an area where even hikers are directed not to step off the trail. Late last year, the agency released a Finding of No Significant Impact, clearing the project for the next phase of the environmental review process.
The road — which is slated to run just less than three miles — would serve a serious purpose. It’s designed to allow access to the Spirit Lake Tunnel, which was built to help drain the lake after its natural outflow was blocked by debris from the eruption. If the tunnel were to fail, lake levels could rise and breach the debris barrier, causing catastrophic flooding all the way to Interstate 5.
For decades, transportation to the tunnel has generally been conducted with helicopters, flying in workers to do inspection and maintenance. The proposed road would allow off-road utility vehicles to get to the lake, making access much easier. The project also includes the drilling of core samples to study the composition and stability of the debris blockage.
The decision notice issued by Monument Ranger Rebecca Hoffman noted that 50,000 people live in the projected inundation area of a Spirit Lake flood, and overdue maintenance on the tunnel is already on the order of tens of millions of dollars. Though the document acknowledges the road could affect some of the science taking place on the Pumice Plain, it says that public safety takes precedent.
Though scientists and conservationists acknowledge public safety is important, they’re skeptical that building a road is the urgent matter the Forest Service is making it out to be.
“They’re triggering this emergency clause that allows them to fast-track things,” said Matt Little, executive director of the Cascade Forest Conservancy. “We also want to address the safety concerns, but we also don’t think the solution should be literally bulldozed through the Pumice Plain in the most sensitive research area of Mount St. Helens with incomplete review. They haven’t shown us that there’s any emergency at this point.”
The road was actually first proposed back in 2017. At the time, the Conservancy and scientists raised concerns, and the Forest Service agreed to a compromise plan to build a shorter road to the southeast end of Spirit Lake, which would allow workers to transport equipment from there to the tunnel site via barge.
Though it wasn’t a perfect solution, it at least “stayed off the most delicate, most sensitive research areas,” Little said. That alternate route was built last year.
“We felt like we went a long way to let that move forward,” Little said.
So advocates were surprised when the road that the Forest Service had agreed not to build resurfaced a year later. Little said he at first thought the proposal was a joke, or that the agency had forgotten its agreement. Researchers say they were not contacted about the plan. The current proposal added in the drilling component, using that to justify the road plan that had been abandoned a year before.
“It’s the same road, but a different purpose,” said Nicole Budine, the Conservancy’s policy and campaign manager. “We were surprised to see the same route proposed so quickly after they constructed the (alternate) route. ... None of the previous objectors were alerted ahead of time.”
Why is the road such a big deal? Scientists say the work they do on the Pumice Plain is predicated on the notion that it’s a totally natural environment — and one of the few places in the world to study what happens when a barren landscape is allowed to return untouched.
The proposed road would eliminate some vegetation, causing erosion, and would deposit sediment in the streams that lead to Spirit Lake. Seeds of foreign plants could get tracked in in vehicle tires. Even seemingly minimal construction could irreparably compromise the natural processes scientists are studying.
Dr. Carri LeRoy, an associate professor at The Evergreen State College, has been studying the development of four streams in the Pumice Plain since 2015. Those waterways were created right after the eruption, and Mount St. Helens is one of the few places on earth where such formations can be seen.
“We don’t get the chance to study brand-new streams really ever, because they carve through their canyons for millions of years,” she said.
The proposed road would cut across all four of the streams LeRoy is studying, with vehicles driving right through the water.
“There’s been years and years of research on the impact of roads on streams. It’s very clear what kind of damage will be caused,” she said. “Every time there’s a road cut across a stream, there’s a lot more sediment mobilized into the system. ... This is a very unique opportunity to study how streams evolve from Day 1. If you blast a road across them, it’s no longer an opportunity to study natural processes.”
Gawel also said his work would be compromised by the road. The changes in vegetation and erosion in the streams above Spirit Lake would affect what goes on in the lake, fundamentally changing his study.
“You can still do research there, but the question changes,” he said. “It tends to take away the reason that you’re doing the research in the first place, and it tends to take away the public interest. The effects of highway erosion on water bodies is something that’s been studied quite a bit. It takes away the reason that people are interested in the park, which is a natural science based park.”
Susan Saul, who was one of the early advocates for the creation of the St. Helens monument and has been a lifelong leader in its conservation, noted that the toll on the ecosystem will be accompanied by human heartache as well.
“The Forest Service wants to put a road right through the middle of their laboratory,” she said. “It’s going to upend people who have been doing their lifetime’s worth of work out there. There’s no recognition of how this impacts the science and the scientists themselves, and the investments they’ve made throughout their careers.”
According to Gawel, more than 100 students have done work on his study over the years, and the work is expected to continue for many years more. That work, and potential funding proposals to expand the research, could be in jeopardy if the road is built.
LeRoy faces an even more immediate crisis. Her work is funded by a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation, but she’s worried that money could be in jeopardy if the road changes the landscape on which the grant was premised.
“Once it’s constructed, I honestly don’t know that I can continue with my NSF-funded project,” she said. “I don’t know that it will have the same value. … My research is uniquely disturbed by this.”
The objection period following the decision notice has since passed, putting the Forest Service into a 45-day review period before starting construction. However, that review and future action are currently on hold due to the federal government shutdown. Hoffman and Erin Black, the agency’s South Zone Planning Team Leader, did not respond to requests for comment — likely also due to the shutdown.
Detractors of the road project want the Forest Service to consider the use of helicopters for both tunnel access and drilling, an alternative that was determined not feasible in the agency’s document of finding. Conservationists argue that document deliberately overstated how much the choppers would need to be used, painting an extreme picture to make that option seem too costly. Saul noted that equipment could be airlifted in, but the ferrying of personnel outlined by USFS is overkill.
“The scientists have been walking in for 35-plus years, often carrying heavy loads on their backs,” Saul said. “There is a reasonable alternative that does not affect all of the long-term research that’s been going on there.”
While it’s unclear how responsive the Forest Service will be when the government reopens, Little cautioned that any attempts to rush the road’s construction without further analysis and input would result in legal action.
“If they don’t slow down and do the complete analysis this requires, they will end up in the courts,” he said.
The Conservancy isn’t the only group warning about the effects of the road. The Washington Native Plant Society submitted a letter to the Forest Service urging it to reconsider, saying that the dangers of erosion, invasive species and disturbances could harm a truly unique research area.
Former Rep. Don Bonker, the area’s legislator at the time of the eruption and a lead backer of efforts in Congress to create the monument, also registered his disapproval.
“The preferred alternative is the use of heavy-lift helicopters, if we are to lessen the impact on research, water quality and erosion,” he wrote. “(The monument) provides assurances in the Comprehensive Management Plan that these research sites would not be disturbed by future management actions. I urge the U.S. Forest Service to make it a priority to find funding for a helicopter contract rather than resorting to a road.”