Since the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. St. Helens in May of last year, volcanic activity has died down to only an occasional earthquake and rush of steam from the mountain's gaping crater. But sparks are still flying over the question of how lands affected by the blast should be managed.
At the crux of the issue is how much of the devastated landscape should be opened up to timber salvage operations and how much should be set aside to protect unique geologic features for scientists to study and for the public to enjoy.
After over a year of consideration, the federal government apparently has made but not yet announced a decision on how best to balance the conflicting demands on the 220 square miles of land damaged by the avalanche and pyroclastic mass that raced down Mt. St. Helens's northern slope. The Department of Agriculture, which administers government lands in the area through the United States Forest Service, is expected to make its decision public in the middle of October. Sources here indicate it is a compromise between the proposals of logging interests and environmentalists.
Agriculture's decision, however, won't be the last word on the issue. Rep. Don Bonker (D), whose district encompasses the devastated area, will introduce legislation in Congress which could tip land use plans away from lumber production and more toward conservation than the timber industry and their Reagan-appointed allies at the Department of Agriculture would like to see.
Last January, the Forest Service issued a draft environment impact statement outlining eight options for the area's land management. The Forest Service recommended one plan of action which rejected both environmentalists' plea for a 200,000-acre national park prohibiting timber salvage operations and lumberjacks' request that federal lands be opened up to widespread logging.
he Forest Service recommendation would have the government buy or manage jointly with timber firms about 30,000 acres now owned by private companies, and incorporate almost 60,000 acres of federal land into an "interpretive area" which would preserve the geologic and ecologic features of the region, but still allow timber firms to harvest 75 percent of the timber damaged by the eruption. The plan calls for construction of roads and a visitor center so tourists, now barred from the area, could view the eerie moonlike landscape around the mountain.
The Department of Agriculture is now reviewing the Forest Service recommendation. Most often, headquarters simply okays plans put together by Forest Service regional offices concerning land use issues. But in this case, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture John Crowell, a former general counsel with the large timber company Louisiana Pacific, has taken a special interest in Mt. St. Helens. Federal officials in the Forest Service's Portland, Ore., office fear that Crowell will give timber interests too free a reign in logging the area affected by the eruption, at the expense of preservation and scientific research.
Northwest of the crater, the land destroyed by the eruption is privately owned, including about 68,000 acres owned by Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the nation's largest Timber firms. The company is willing to trade about 1,700 acres of its heavily damaged land closest to the crater for inclusion into the reserve in REturn for federal land of equal value. But the Forest Service wants to bring fully 18,200 acres of Weyerhaeuser land into the reserve. The firm balks at giving up land on which downed timber can be salvaged easily.
Weyerhaeuser has gone ahead with salvage operations at Elk Rock, the site 10 miles northwest of the crater where the Forest Service had hoped to build a visitor center for the public to view the havoc wrought by the blast.
Weyerhaeuser has also logged timber right up to the North Fork of the Toutle River, hit by a massive mudflow. Since salvage operations began on Weyerhaeuser land a month after the eruption, the company has hauled out well over half its timber damaged by the blast. The firm expects to finish the job by December 1982.
Northeast of the crater, the eruption flattened timber in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest managed by the Forest Service. Small local timber companies, which own no land and rely on timber sales from federal lands, are pinning their hopes on an Agriculture decision which opens up a large amount of this property to logging.
In view of the sensitivity of the environment, scientists and environmentalists worry that aggressive logging could leave the slopes unprotected from erosion, increase the danger of floods to populated areas downstream, and ruin chances for the region to recover from the volcanic blast.
Timber companies, on the other hand, argue for quick removal of the timber, citing potential for fires and beetle infestations that would endanger surrounding forests unhurt by the volcano. Furthermore, extensive timber salvaging may even foster regrowth, industry says, since churning up soil covered by ash can provide a more hospitable environment for plants and wildlife to take hold.