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Posts Tagged ‘Mount St. Helens’

This is an expanded version of the review of Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, by Steve Olson, which first appeared in the April-May 2017 issue of American Scientist. 

When I visit environmental history–related locations, I typically bring back two reminders of the trip: photographs I’ve taken and rocks I’ve collected from the sites. When I returned from a trip to Wallace, Idaho, in 2009—a small, picturesque town located in the state’s panhandle and surrounded by national forests—I came home with rocks and a small vial of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens.

The vial measures about 1.75″ in length but contains a great deal of information and memory.

The rocks came from outside the abandoned mine where, in 1910, Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski and his men rode out one of the most famous wildfires in American history. Known as “the Big Burn,” the conflagration consumed 3 million acres in about 36 hours. Burning embers and ash fell upon Wallace, and fire consumed about half the town. The fire transformed the U.S. Forest Service, then only five years old; the lessons agency leadership drew from it—that more men, money, and material could prevent and possibly remove fire from the landscape—eventually became policy. The agency’s decision to fight and extinguish all wildfires, known as the “10 a.m. policy,” is one America is still dealing with because of the ecological impact removing fire from the landscape for half a century has had.

Seventy years later, another famous natural disaster coated the town in ash when Mount St. Helens, which sits in the middle of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southeastern Washington, erupted, sending some of its content miles into the air and drifting east towards Wallace and beyond. The vial I brought back contains some of that ash. The tiny container is a reminder that this disaster, too, transformed the Forest Service. It also transformed the U.S. Geological Survey.

The transformation began on March 20, 1980. After 123 years of dormancy, Mount St. Helens woke up. Seismometers had detected a 4.0 earthquake about a mile below the surface of the volcano, which is located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwestern Washington. In the days immediately following, more quakes were recorded, as many as 40 an hour. These weren’t aftershocks—it was a volcanic swarm. Business owners, loggers, and the media demanded to know when the volcano was going to blow. As Seattle-based journalist Steve Olson discusses in his book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (W.W. Norton, 2016), there was no easy answer: The science wasn’t there yet. But as Olson demonstrates, the lack of clear scientific guidance and an absence of straightforward jurisdictional relationships fostered government inaction at all levels, with disastrous results. Given recent seismic activity around Mount St. Helens (earthquake swarms were recorded in June and November of 2016, although these gave no indication of imminent danger), revisiting the events of 1980 seems especially timely.

Just after the March 20th quake, some immediate protective measures were taken. The Weyerhaeuser Company, which was harvesting some of the last old-growth timber on its land surrounding Mount St. Helens on land it had owned since 1900, evacuated its 300 employees, and the Washington Department of Emergency Services advised everyone within 15 miles of the volcano to leave the area. But within a week, restlessness set in. After all, livelihoods were at stake. Area law enforcement couldn’t keep U.S. Forest Service roads closed to the public indefinitely and, given Weyerhaeuser’s economic and political influence in the region, public safety officials dared not close roads on its land. Beyond that, law enforcement simply didn’t have the resources to staff all the roads that snaked their way through the forest and around the volcano and nearby Spirit Lake.

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Thirty years ago today, Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and left an altered landscape as well as a mess of historical documents in its wake.  The deadliest volcanic event in U.S. history flattened 200 square miles of forest on the surrounding private and public lands.  Its impact on forest management is still reverberating across the pages of history and forestry textbooks to this day.

Photo taken on May 18, 1980, of Mount St. Helens at about 3:30 pm. Jim Hughes took this from about 20 air miles away. (U.S. Forest Service)

FHS has a plethora of documents and historical photos of the still-active volcano in different parts of our archive and library.  In addition to numerous journals and magazines in our library with articles on the topic, the federal government (in particular the Forest Service) generated documents and reports on what happened before, during, and after the event. We also have coverage of the ensuing debate over what it should do with its share of the land — whether the timber should be salvaged and the forest replanted or if it should be left alone and studied.  Many of these items, along with oral history interviews with agency personnel, can be found in our U.S. Forest Service History Collection, which is searchable through our database.  After much debate, which can be followed via our documents, the area became a natural laboratory and a 110,000-acre national monument with two visitors centers (we even have information on those!).

Don’t want to read through all of that stuff?  You can learn more about the impact of the eruption on the Forest Service’s land management practices in the film “The Greatest Good” and from a DVD extra, as well as the companion book The Forest Service and The Greatest Good.  We also have several photos in the FHS collection like the one seen here of Mount St. Helens before it exploded.

Mount St. Helens, taken sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, probably from Spirit Lake. (FHS Photo Collection)

The Weyerhaeuser Company, which owned quite a bit of land adjacent to the volcano also affected by the eruption, had to make similar decisions about what to do with its timberland. You can find two articles that touch on the company’s response to the eruption here and here, with “before” and “after” photos on page 26 of the second article.

In light of current debates about whether the Forest Service land under study should be turned over to the National Park Service and reopened for recreation, it may be useful to revisit the history of Mount St. Helens and the legacy of the eruption thirty years ago today.

Mount St. Helens, as seen from Portland, Oregon. Taken in March 2010. (Courtesy of James G. Lewis)

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