Living in the shadow of volatile Mt. St. Helens

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Steam rises into the cloudless sky. It's nothing to worry about, according to people who live and work beneath Mt. St. Helens. With recent tremors at only 2 on the Richter scale, there is confidence here that the 1980 eruption of the volcano isn't about to be repeated.

Life for the rugged timber and river people who live near the volcano has also become more normal and bearable because of technology on a giant scale.

This year, the United States Army Corps of Engineers finished a 11/2-mile tunnel, lessening flood danger that resulted from the mountain's 17-mile, 3-billion-cubic-yard avalanche.

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Congress is also considering legislation for a sediment-retention dam, recommended by the corps, to reduce silt in the Toutle, Cowlitz, and Columbia Rivers.

The eruption five years ago destroyed land and wildlife, at great environmental and economic cost. Then, in late May, there was an eruption alert, although it was called off last month. What does it mean today to live in the shadow of an active volcano?

A serious effect of the eruption is continual erosion of sediment down the Toutle, which flows northwest from the volcano area. The Toutle, in turn, flows into the Cowlitz, a southbound tributary of the Columbia.

For five years, Castle Rock, a town of 2,150 people on the Cowlitz, was in the path of the flood that would have come down the Toutle if a storm had caused unstable earth from the eruption to collapse.

``We would have been under about 30 feet of water,'' says Jan Neuneker, manager of the Chamber of Commerce and the Visitor Information Center in Castle Rock.

Because of the tunnel, ``now we're safe for development,'' Mrs. Neuneker says. ``I see the future as being very good for this area.''

Castle Rock is on the route that the US Forest Service plans to develop for visitors to the 110,000-acre Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The mountain, 9,677 feet before the eruption and 8,365 feet after, is already being compared to the Grand Canyon in its appeal to tourists. Of its 1 million visitors a year, about 80 percent come from outside of Washington.

Another big eruption is not expected in the near future, because the volcano has let off so much pressure. The 1980 eruption occurred after a 5.1 earthquake shook off part of the mountain. A dome that is slowly building in the crater could become a new mountaintop.

The pace of life in the hilly region around Mt. St. Helens is ``slower'' than in the city, and the local economy is based on timber, an industry that has been depressed in recent years.

But new industries, based on the volcano as a tourist attraction, have taken up some of the slack. Such industries range from handmade, ash-glazed pottery to volcano-viewing flights at $50 per seat. A large hotel and recreation complex is planned by private investors.

Neuneker says Castle Rock might have died without the volcano. But she doesn't see tourism-related work as a replacement for $12- to $15-per-hour wages in logging.

The eruption also brought millions of dollars worth of contracted engineering projects and timber-salvaging operations to the region. The Army Corps of Engineers alone has spent $375 million in federal funds on volcano-related projects. Much of the work is temporary, but it has provided income for area residents.

In Longview, Wash., a city of 30,000 down the Cowlitz River from Castle Rock, local opinion is that the volcano has hurt business, says John Thompson, executive director of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council.

Dredging, however, produced 3,000 acres of new industrial land that will increase the importance of Longview, Kalama, and Woodland, all small Columbia River ports, Mr. Thompson says. ``I think history may show that it's actually been a benefit to the area, in addition to tourism,'' he says.

For wildlife, recovery seems far off -- although nature's resilience is apparent.

In tended areas, some trees planted four years ago are already four feet tall. And elk, among many animals killed in the eruption, have reappeared.

Many parts of the Toutle River, however, were ruined for fish by silt and by loss of vegetation. But the fish will swim through bad water to spawn in undamaged tributaries, a fact that has surprised fish biologist Bob Lucas.

``It's given me insight on the flexibility of a species,'' says Mr. Lucas of the Washington State Department of Game. ``Usually, it's thought that they need certain criteria or they will disappear.''

In addition, total spawning area will be reduced if the proposed $195 million sediment dam is built. Because some undamaged tributaries will be filled in by the dam, the state is planning to trap the fish and truck them to unaffected waters upstream.

Some environmentalists are upset about the ecological impact of the proposed dam, but the corps of engineers recommends it for financial reasons. A corps study says it would save an average of $23.3 million every year for the next 50 years in dredging costs.

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