ALERT: CFC and coalition files lawsuit protect the Pumice Plain

Monday, March 22

Today, Cascade Forest Conservancy and a coalition of scientists and conservation groups challenged in federal court a U.S. Forest Service plan to build a road through the Pumice Plain, the blast zone of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, to assess the integrity of a natural dam on Spirit Lake created by the volcano’s eruption in 1980. The road would end dozens of irreplaceable scientific research projects, many dating back 40 years to just after the eruption, by destroying research plots and permanently changing the unique ecological conditions in the vicinity.

“Callous land managers are seeking to exercise dominion over the landscape at Mount St. Helens, but this landscape is more than just special, and more than just delicate,” said Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, and Cascade Forest Conservancy Board Director. “The Pumice Plain is teaching the world new things we couldn’t learn in any other way, in any other place, which is what Congress intended when it created the National Volcanic Monument. Prudent planning can achieve a win for everyone: to ensure public safety while preserving this scientific jewel and the future discoveries that require its continued existence.”

The 1980 eruption provided scientists and researchers a unique and rare opportunity to study ecosystem recovery and formation, available nowhere else on earth. Nearly all aspects of terrestrial and aquatic ecology are under investigation at Mount St. Helens generally and on the Pumice Plain and in Spirit Lake specifically. This research could prove enormously beneficial to science, nature, and even to society.

Many ongoing studies rely on a single plot at the location of the first known plant to establish on the Pumice Plain, which was found to host a previously unknown species of moth. The proposed route for the road would go directly through this plot, destroying it and forestalling the insights it would provide us about biodiversity and landscape regeneration.

“Over the past four years, we have offered the Forest Service many alternatives to this project that protect public safety, preserve research plots on the Pumice Plain, and mitigate environmental impacts. Instead, the agency is pushing this project forward without adequate environmental analysis, or consideration of the permanent impacts the construction of a road will have on this incredible landscape,” said Lucy Brookham, Policy Manager for the Cascade Forest Conservancy. “Our members will see 40 years of research destroyed, recreation in a no-longer roadless landscape permanently altered, as well as the progress of newly forming wildlife, watersheds, and plant species halted in their tracks.” 

In addition, the project would build a road on top of the Truman Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in the Monument. This road would damage newly forming streams and watersheds, introduce invasive species, and severely detract from the experience of hikers on the only trail that connects public access from Johnston Ridge to Windy Ridge across the Pumice Plain.

The safety of residents downstream of Spirit Lake is extremely important, which is why thoughtful planning is essential. However, the Forest Service has not yet developed a comprehensive approach to ensuring the safety of downstream communities as well as protecting the internationally known research occurring at Mount St. Helens. Instead, the agency is piecemealing its management of this area. The Forest Service must achieve the shared goal of ensuring public safety while maintaining the Congressionally designated purpose of the monument: scientific study and research

“Insights from the scientists working at the monument inform ongoing restoration projects across Washington. Further understanding of these processes will be permanently destroyed if the proposed project is implemented as planned” said Becky Chaney, conservation chair of the Washington Native Plant Society. “The work is significant enough for WNPS to help fund the research through its grant program. The science on recovery and succession has resource and restoration applications to the conservation of native plants, to wildlife habitat recovery, and to my own work as a forest planning consultant.”

SPIRIT LAKE PROJECT UPDATE

June 26, 2020

 

Some places are too special, too beautiful, and too important to risk losing. One of those is the Pumice Plain, a 6-mile long area between the crater of Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake. This landscape is unique, pristine, and has transformed our understanding of aspects of ecology. Now, a proposed road through the heart of this place is putting it at risk of being lost.

 

The Pumice Plain is, in geologic time, a brand-new area. When Mount St. Helens erupted forty years ago on May 18, 1980, it erupted sideways. That day, the area north of the mountain was buried under hundreds of feet of superheated ash and pumice–nothing survived.

But more quickly than we thought possible, life has come back. The Pumice Plain is still a rugged, harsh, windblown landscape–but now rich with insects, flowers, plants, and animals, each attesting to the stubborn resilience of life. The area’s protected status has meant that hikers have had a unique opportunity to see a Cascadian volcano’s power and the return of life up close. It has also allowed scientists and researchers to make some surprising discoveries that wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else on Earth.

 

 

Despite the area’s scientific value and protected status as a National Monument and a Class I Research Area, the Forest Service plans to construct a road here for easier access to infrastructure (a drainage gate at nearby Spirit Lake). The drainage gate helps prevent a breach of the lake, which could pose serious danger to downstream communities. But this road is not the only (or even fastest or best) way to keep people safe. The road would close the world-famous Truman Trail, damage newly forming streams and watersheds, introduce invasive species, and disrupt, or end ongoing scientific studies. We could lose this place forever.

There is enough we know now to stand against this project. Yet the real extent of the potential impacts are not fully understood. The Forest Service avoided their obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to provide an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a detailed study which is typically required for a project like this. They did so by announcing a Finding of No Significant Impact, meaning the Forest Service has come to the conclusion that the road will not have a significant impact (positive or negative) on the people, plants, and animals who inhabit this place. We know that isn’t true. There will be impacts, and they will be permanent. We need to know what they will be.

 

There are other problems with the plan too, like the addition of core sample drilling along the lake and many more issues you can read about in detail in our objection, submitted to the Forest Service in May, which you can read here. It is critical that we stop this planned project and find a better way to protect people living in downstream communities. We are asking the agency to take a step back. Cascade Forest Conservancy is ready and willing to advocate for the funding the agency needs to complete a full EIS, and to work cooperatively to explore alternative solutions that protect Washingtonians while preserving this irreplaceable place.

The official objection period for this project has passed, but it’s not too late to raise more public awareness for the Pumice Plain. Share this article, or plan a visit to the Pumice Plain to see how special this place is for yourself. Cascade Forest Conservancy and many other organizations and concerned individuals submitted objections to the Forest Service. We will attend an objection resolution meeting with the agency on July 8th. After, we will know if the Forest Service will decide to work with us to find a better solution, or if the agency will push forward with the plan as is. Either way, we will continue fighting to preserve this landscape and keep our friends and supporters informed along the way.

What’s at stake in the Mount St. Helens national monument 40 years after the eruption?

by Bryn Harding | Communication Manager

May 18 2020

I was born a few years after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The two five-gallon buckets of fine gray ash stored in our garage were curiosities I mostly ignored as I explored the seemingly ageless mountains, streams, and forests of the Pacific Northwest. They were certainly interesting–not only because of the stories associated with them, but also because their weight seemed alien, as if the contents of the buckets was at once too light and too heavy. In my mind, the Pacific Northwest had always been a place defined by peace and stillness. But as that ash attested to, the Pacific Northwest is in fact a place of incredible power and violence, of death and rebirth, destruction and transformation.

The Pacific Northwest is a land of volcanoes. Major eruptions and corresponding cycles of destruction and regrowth are a part of the fabric of this place. Yet, as common as these events may be geologically, in the span of any single human lifetime they are rare, which is why we are so lucky to have the chance to observe, record, and learn from the areas protected from human interference within the Mount St. Helens national monument, the most active volcano in the Cascades.

At places near the blast zone, like Spirit Lake and the area now referred to as the Pumice Plain, the destruction following the famous May 18th eruption seemed permanent. However, life has already begun to come back. “I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to watch Spirit Lake transform from a cold, clear body of water to a coffee-colored, lukewarm basin of pathogens and then back to a cold, clear lake teeming with new life.” wrote Christine Colasurdo, author of Return to Spirit Lake: Life and landscape at Mount St. Helens, “Spirit Lake is a unique place of mystery and beauty that deserves our awe and respect.”

The return of life to the Pumice Plain has been similarly enlightening. Within just a few years of the eradication of all plants and animals, some species started to return, and prairie lupine began to flower. Now the area, featuring trails much enjoyed by curious hikers from around the world, teems with birds and insects, as grasses, wildflowers and young willows sway in the breeze. “The Pumice Plain, once baked clean of life by the 1980 eruption,” wrote Colasurdo, “is now one of the prime treasures of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It is where research done by scientists has helped rewrite biology textbooks, and where hikers can experience the awesome power of Mount St. Helens’ blast zone.”

Spirit Lake and the Pumice Plain have provided us with insights into how habitats, ecosystems and watersheds form, insights that are changing how we think about managing and protecting the world around us. Right now, there are more than 30 studies currently underway in this natural laboratory; each taking advantage of the protected and undisturbed areas within the National Monument to gain insights not possible anywhere else.

Yet today, the Pumice Plain is facing a new threat. This time the danger comes in the form of a proposed road to be constructed through the heart of this unique, beautiful and irreplaceable area. There is a real need for the Forest Service to access infrastructure near Spirit Lake, but we don’t think this road is the right solution to that problem. The road risks the unique beauty and insights this site offers to hikers and the ability of researchers to complete their work and add to our knowledge. CFC will be sharing ways you can help us in our efforts to protect this place in the coming weeks.

For now, we encourage you to learn more about Spirit Lake and the Pumice Plain. Reading Christine Colasurdo’s helpful and informative book is a great place to start. Colasurdo’s book is available by emailing her through her website (www.christinecolasurdo.com.) It’s also available online through Annie Bloom’s Books and Broadway Books.

If you would like to learn more about some of the scientists working in this area, we encourage you to start with the articles here and here.

ACTION ALERT: Object to the proposed project at Spirit Lake

April 30, 2020

We need your help. On April 7, the US Forest Service released a draft decision and Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed action at Spirit Lake. The Forest Service plans to move forward with the proposal to construct a road straight through the Pumice Plain. Those of you who commented on the original proposal now have an opportunity to object to the draft decision, no later than May 22, 2020.

[Note: The Forest Service will only accept objections from individuals who previously submitted public comments, and objections must relate to the specific issue[s] discussed in your original comments. Didn’t comment but still want to help protect the Pumice Plains? Help CFC get the word out by sharing the articles linked below on your social media accounts. CFC commented on the original proposal, will be submitting detailed objections to the draft decision, while we continue working to raise public awareness around this issue. If you’re in a position to do so, consider making a donation to CFC to support our conservation work.]

The US Forest Service has released its draft decisions and EA for activities to replace the Spirit Lake intake gate system and to drill into the debris field from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. To accomplish this, The Forest Service plans to build a 3.5-mile, 16-foot wide road across the Pumice Plain within the Mount St. Helens National Monument, replacing the Truman Trail (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/truman-trail-pumice-plain)

The Pumice Plain is like nowhere else on Earth. Since the destruction brought by the 1980 eruption, the area has been protected, researched, and allowed to return without interference. As a result, the Pumice Plain is now a wild and beautiful natural laboratory that is reshaping our understanding of ecosystem development.

The proposed road would severely impact the Pumice Plain by:

• disturbing wildlife including mountain goats, fish, deer, and elk.  

• negatively impact streams, watersheds, and wetlands, 

• disrupting recreation and hunting, 

• opening a potential door for invasive species,

• impacting, and possibly destroying  25 research plots, and cutting across most of the transects scientists and researchers have been using to record the recovery of the area.

The proposed project addresses legitimate concerns. There is a need to modify and repair the intake gate for the Spirit Lake Tunnel, and to provide access for tunnel maintenance to protect downstream communities. But the timeline expressed in the draft decision does not accurately reflect the situation. It would take an abnormal series of climatic events followed by months of inaction to result in a breach. In the unlikely event of infrastructure failure around Spirit Lake, there would still be “substantial response time to prevent catastrophic breaching and protection of the downstream communities.”*

We believe the agency is using the ruse of an emergency as the pretense for forcing action without a fair public participation process or adequate analysis in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement. Additionally, we believe that the need for the geotechnical drilling project is premature, and by combining these projects the agency is dismissing reasonable alternatives that could minimize impacts on the environment, wildlife, and research, while still protecting downstream communities.

CFC formed a coalition and voiced our concerns when the project was proposed. The recently released draft decision does not adequately address our concerns with this project. We are submitting a formal objection to the agency’s decision and will continue to do all that we can to advocate for a plan that both protects communities and this beautiful, important, and unique place. 

*Grant, et al., GEOLOGIC, GEOMORPHIC AND HYDROLOGIC CONTEXT OF THE SPIRIT LAKE OUTLET (2017).


Action:

Objections to the Spirit Lake Intake Gate Replacement and Geotechnical Drilling Project or to the forest plan amendment will only be accepted from those who have previously submitted timely comments regarding these planning efforts during any designated opportunity for public comment in accordance with the project objection requirements in section 218.5(a). Issues raised in objections must be based on previously submitted timely, specific written comments regarding the proposed project unless based on new information arising after the designated comment opportunities.

Please reach out to us at info@cascadeforest.org with questions about submitting objections. 

Objections can be submitted electronically here:

https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=57259

Objections may also be mailed to:

 Regional Forester (Reviewing Officer)

Pacific Northwest Regional Office

Attn: 1507 Objections

P.O. Box 3623


Articles to share:

The Daily Chronicle Researchers, Conservationists Raise Alarm About Proposed Road Through Mount St. Helens Pumice Plain* January 24, 2019

The Daily News Mount St. Helens ecological research could help conserve, restore nature April 8, 2020

The Columbian ‘Floating habitat’ could be key for Spirit Lake fish April 5, 2020

*this article references the withdrawn 2019 Spirit Lake project proposal, which was similar to the current 2020 proposal.

 

Photos by Carri LeRoy

We’re working to protect the world-famous pumice plain

The Pumice Plain created by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens is a place like nowhere else on earth. Unlike the majority of the blast zone, the superheated pyroclastic flows that swept over this area forty years ago sterilized all life, effectively leaving behind an ecologically blank slate. The Pumice Plain created a unique opportunity for scientists and researchers to study nature’s return to a barren landscape in an area that has been protected from human intervention for the past 40 years. There are currently over thirty active research studies helping us understand the process of ecological recolonization to a degree that would be impossible without this site. Now, this proposed project puts all of this in jeopardy.

The US Forest Service has put forward plans to build a road through the heart of this irreplaceable landscape. The proposed road is a threat to the area’s streams, rivers, and lakes. If built, this road will pass over five permanent streams and 10 seasonal streams which together represent five separate watersheds, wholly created after the 1980 eruption. Pristine newborn watersheds like these do not exist anywhere else on earth. The proposed road would lead to soil erosion and deliver harmful sediment into streams and, subsequently, into Spirit Lake. Worse still, each stream-crossing would likely wash out every season, requiring excavation and rebuilding. All this sediment will force aquatic insects and fish to move downstream, negatively impact water quality, and damage stream and lakebed habitats.

If completed, the road would be passed over by 1,980 passenger vehicles, 84 tractor-trailers, 464 single-unit trucks and 6-10 drill rigs every year. The proposed road would need disruptive and damaging annual maintenance, and open the door for the introduction of invasive species onto this pristine landscape. It would also permanently close the Windy Ridge, the Plains of Abraham, and the Truman Trail–disrupting people’s ability to enjoy this world-renown spot through recreational hiking, biking, and hunting.

The need for a new Forest Service road to Spirit Lake is real. The agency needs easier access to important infrastructure around Spirit Lake to prevent overflow and protect downstream communities. However, we believe that there are adequate alternatives that would alleviate many of the negative impacts of the proposed plan while still providing the necessary access. Given the ecological harm the proposed road would cause, CFC is asking the US Forest Service to explore alternatives before committing to a plan that necessitates disruptions to a beautiful, one-of-a-kind landscape.

This isn’t the first time the US Forest Service has proposed building a road here. In fact, it’s the third. This time, the agency announced the plan on December 17, 2019, immediately preceding the winter holidays. Agency staff were out of the office for a majority of the public comment period. The US Forest Service elected to forgo the typical National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process by declining to entertain public comment after the final Environmental Assessment (EA) has been published.

We are currently waiting on the final EA and will provide updates as they become available. We have submitted comments (which you can read here) and will continue to advocate for alternatives that leave the Pumice Plains intact and protect the communities near Spirit Lake. You can make a donation in any amount to help support our work here.Continue reading

Daily Chronicle: Researchers, Conservationists Raise Alarm About Proposed Road Through Mount St. Helens Pumice Plain

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RECOVERY: Thirty-Three Active Research Studies Are Taking Place on Land Buried in Ash, Scientists Worry About Effect of Proposed Road

By Alex Brown / The Daily Chronicle / abrown@chronline.com

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.”
Read the full article here: http://www.chronline.com/news/researchers-conservationists-raise-alarm-about-proposed-road-through-mount-st/article_18e147d8-2003-11e9-b5e2-3f911019abc1.html
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Protecting the Unique Environment of Mount St. Helens

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History of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

In 1982, Congress created the 110,000 acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument to protect the unique research and recreation opportunities of this landscape. The heart of the Monument, and the research conducted there, is the Pumice Plain – where nothing survived the eruption.
May 18th was the thirty-eighth anniversary of the eruption, and throughout this time the Pumice Plain has been the site of several, long-term scientific studies. Thousands of people visit the Monument each year to witness the on-going return of plants and animals, and how the environment has changed in the years since the eruption.
Since the Monument’s creation, the Forest Service has allowed limited public access to the areas most impacted by the eruption, including the Pumice Plain. For example, to protect the natural recovery of the Pumice Plain, and the on-going long-term scientific research, no motorized vehicles are allowed. Even the Forest Service does not currently operate motorized vehicles on the Pumice Plain. Instead, they utilize helicopters when they need to access areas like Spirit Lake, as they have done for over three decades.

Proposed Motorized Access Routh Threatens the Pumice Plain

The Forest Service is now proposing a long-term administrative motorized access route across the Pumice Plain which risks this important landscape. The Forest Service’s stated need for this access route is to maintain the Spirit Lake Tunnel.
During the 1980 eruption, a debris flow blocked the natural outflow of Spirit Lake. Communities downstream were at risk of flooding if Spirit Lake were to overflow, so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the Spirit Lake Tunnel to maintain safe water levels in Spirit Lake. The tunnel was completed in 1985, and the Forest Service has maintained the tunnel by helicopter ever since.
While we recognize the important need to balance protecting scientific, ecological, and recreational values with public safety, we remain concerned that the Forest Service has not adequately considered the long-term impacts of motorized administrative access across the Pumice Plain.
Especially concerning are the potential impacts of this motorized access route to ongoing, long-term scientific research. The Forest Service has not pointed to specific situations where they were unable to perform required maintenance on the tunnel, or that would prevent them from using helicopters for access as they currently do.
The Monument, especially the Pumice Plain, is a national treasure and world-renowned for scientific research. It is concerning to see the Forest Service consider an action that would damage this irreplaceable landscape without adequate analysis of whether this access route is necessary.
So far, we haven’t heard any evidence that the Forest Service now needs this motorized access to maintain the tunnel, when they have been successfully managing Spirit Lake water levels to protect downstream communities for over thirty years.

Help us continue our work to protect public lands in the Cascade Mountains by volunteering your time or becoming a CFC member.

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