Politicians, conservationists, businessmen debate: who should 'manage' Mt. St. Helens?

On May 18, 1980, it took Mt. St. Helens a few minutes to shoot a cubic mile of ash, rock, and lava over the Northwest.

Twenty months later, various government, business, and conservationist interests cannot agree on what to do with the smoldering mountain.

All agree that the volcano is a priceless geologic and historic legacy - and a potential tourist gold mine - that should be preserved. But they argue over how much land should be allotted, what activities (from logging to wilderness camping) should be allowed, and even what administrative designation should be assigned.

In 1980, as area residents recovered from the devastation, there was little doubt Mt. St. Helens would be enshrined as a national park or monument administered by the Interior Department's National Park Service. Rep. Don Bonker (D) of Washington endorsed a monument. Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, who was a candidate in 1980, announced that legislation for a national park would be a top, perhaps his first, priority in office.

But Messrs. Gorton and Bonker and the rest of Congress pulled back from attempting any legislation last year. Now a number of different groups are pushing for a permanent solution for Mt. St. Helens.

Residents of neighboring towns want St. Helens, still locked in a protective ''red zone'' where virtually all public visiting is barred, opened up. They say tourist dollars can help revive an economy pinched by a depressed housing and timber market.

Three private companies and the state want the federal government to acquire the land and free them from worry about decay of still-valuable, blown-down trees. Conservationists say undersupervised salvage and road repair may destroy much of the awesome landscape before protection can be legislated.

The National Forest Service, which manages about three-quarters of the surrounding land, has moved to make its provisional protection of the blast site permanent. Last October they declared an 84,710-acre ''National Volcanic Area.'' This area would be shielded from logging, which has already resumed in other parts of the blast andmudslide-devastated zone.

In December, Congressman Bonker introduced a bill for such permanent Forest Service management, but over a larger area. Senator Gorton's aides say he will place a similar bill in the Senate.

One Gorton aide says the senator switched support to the Forest Service after seeing ''what a good job'' they had done. Further, she says, a national park would be harder to legislate ''because it would probably require a lot of federal funding.'' A Bonker aide raises a secondary worry: such designation would put Mt. St. Helens under controversial Interior Secretary James Watt.

The Sierra Club and Mt. St. Helens Protective Association propose instead a 216,000-acre national monument, and insist the Park Service is more experienced at conservation and handling visitors. The conservationists further charge the Forest Service is too closely tied to the timber companies to protect such a delicate site.

Forest Service planner John Johnson claims his agency can ''supply everything a national park can, and better protection around the fringes,'' where Forest Service timberland abuts.

But without additional appropriations, the Forest Service says it can't settle with the other landowners in the area. It proposes scenic easements and cooperative management instead, and offers to let the state and timber companies salvage more downed logs.

State Lands Commissioner Brian Boyle replies that the offer puts the state between a log and a hard place: to harvest logs it thinks should be preserved, or violate its mandate to finance state school construction with maximum timber sales.

The timber giant Weyerhaeuser, the largest private landholder, is equally impatient to get off the volcano. But it claims more of the interpretive area can be spared to salvage and cutting. Weyerhaeuser admits it has even salvaged from that area, where the Forest Service declares no logs have yet been taken.

Amid the confusion, even traditional adversaries like the timber company and the conservationists agree on one thing, fast action from Congress is needed. But however quickly volcanoes may erupt, the government moves at its own pace.

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