When the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was created it was expected to host 1-2 million visitors a year. It currently receives less than 500 thousand.
Our friends and partners at the Mount St. Helens Institute (MSHI), a non-profit that advances understanding and stewardship of the Earth through science, education, and exploration of volcanic landscapes, are looking for new ways to connect people to the volcano. Recently, they brought a proposal forward in response to the USFS’s public “Request for Expressions of Interest”—a major update to the former Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center that includes a small campground, cabins, 3 small lodges, staff housing, and food service to better meet the needs of their Outdoor School programs as well as meet the needs of other visitors to the Monument through overnight accommodations.
Due to a lack of USFS resources and funding to keep up with maintenance, and declining visitation, the former Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center closed in 2007. However, in 2012, MSHI began partnering with USFS on use of the site for education and community engagement programs. The number of people, primarily youth, served at the site nearly doubled every year from 2011-2017, reaching existing capacity in 2018. It became clear that the current facilities don’t have the capacity or scale of operations necessary for MSHI to operate sustainably and fully realize the educational and community-building potential the Coldwater site holds.
In response, the MSHI developed a vision to transform the current facility into a world-class, environmentally and financially sustainable, nonprofit facility that provides outdoor school and other educational experiences while expanding access to public land. If realized, MSHI’s planned improvements will also enable Coldwater Ridge to welcome more students and outdoor schools while hosting events and retreats, overnight campers and guests, and more day-use visitors. These additional activities will provide self-sustaining funds needed for regular maintenance and educational programming while increasing access for visitors coming to connect with and experience this unique and inspiring landscape.
MSHI’s proposal calls for the creation of new lodges to house students attending outdoor schools, improvements to the existing visitor center, 10 new cabins, staff housing, the construction of a new campground, outdoor classrooms and amphitheaters, and more, enabling visitors to experience Mount St. Helens over multiple days rather than a short visit.
According to MSHI, the new developments will be built to Living Building Challenge standards, using the most sustainable building materials and practices available. Because of the existing infrastructure (including multiple buildings and large parking area), there will be only limited impacts on the landscape outside of areas that have already experienced extensive disturbances. While increased use and development may sometimes result in negative consequences, this site, which is easily accessible from Interstate 5 and lies along the route to the well-used Johnston Ridge Observatory, already experiences significant visitation. In this instance, the upgraded facilities and environmental education provided there could actually help reduce negative impacts while increasing access.
Mount St. Helens is an incredible place that deserves to be sustainably enjoyed and cherished by all. CFC is supportive of the MSHI’s plan to increase access to and appreciation of the natural world–especially for students and outdoor schools. Once the final design and engineering work are complete, the Forest Service will present the plans and an analysis of their potential impacts to the environment for public review and feedback in compliance with processes required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). CFC will participate in the NEPA process and offer feedback and comment to ensure the project will not impact ecosystems and species within the Monument and surrounding landscape.