May 25, 1997

The Best View Fifth Visitor Center Opens, Looks Right Into St. Helens Crater

Tim Klass Associated Press
 

Ever since Mount St. Helens blew its top, visitors have craved a straight-on view into the crater.

Now it’s available, weather permitting.

That gaping maw, more than any special effects in a wide-screen movie or gee-wizardry in geological displays, is the attraction of the $10.5 million Johnston Ridge Observatory that opened last weekend, 17 years after the volcano’s deadly outburst on May 18, 1980.

“It brings the volcano up close,” said Norm Banks, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist from the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, about 55 miles to the southwest.

The setting and displays offer an introduction to the biological recovery taking place in the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

“For me, personally, this is a great place to look out over the landscape and see what is happening,” said Peter Frenzen, chief monument scientist. “You kind of have to understand the geology before you can understand the biology.”

There was precious little biology to understand that May morning, when the mountaintop exploded with the force of a 24-megaton nuclear bomb.

The northward blast killed 57 people and devastated 230 square miles. Trees 8 feet in diameter were smashed into matchsticks. Areas more than 300 miles to the east were blanketed with gritty volcanic ash.

Where once a symmetrical, 9,677-foot peak - the Mount Fuji of North America - had presided over lush forest, a steaming, horseshoe-shaped crater with outer walls rising to 8,365 feet, now dominated desolation it had made.

Quieter eruptions over the next six years have built a heap of chunky lava inside the crater, measuring about 2,840 feet by 885 feet at the base and about 920 feet high.

Little has happened since 1986. The last cluster of small volcanic earthquakes, detected only on seismographs, was logged in late 1995.

The molten rock called magma that fueled the eruption has now subsided beneath the volcano, Frenzen said.

“The upper part of the magma body has cooled, so there’s actually a plug over it,” he explained. “It’s pretty unlikely that anything (eruptive) will happen soon.”

In clear weather, which prevails about a third of the time, the shattered mountain looms over a rocky terrain punctuated by a few green patches of grass, shrubs and trees.

At 40,000 years, Mount St. Helens is the youngest volcano in the Cascade range and the most active between Mexico and Alaska.

The observatory is about 5-1/2 miles north of the peak and a quarter-mile east of the spot where USGS volcanologist David A. Johnston died after reporting by radio, “Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it!”

Johnston’s body and car have never been found. Scraps of rope and other items from his camp were discovered during construction of the last sixmile stretch of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, which cost about $30.3 million.

The new observatory, designed to accommodate as many as 1,400 people an hour, is virtually invisible from the eastern end of the 52-mile road, also known as Washington 504, that winds into the site from Interstate 5.

The entrance, built into the south face of the ridge at an elevation of about 4,200 feet, is to the right of a viewing area near the 350-car parking lot.

Entering the 10,000-square-foot exhibition hall, visitors pass an information desk and book-sale area en route to a 264-seat, wide-screen theater for a 16-minute movie rerecreating the eruption.

“Actually, the movie is starting to interpret for you what to look for on the outside,” said Jim Quiring, director of interpretive services.

At the end, the screen and curtain rise to reveal a window framing the mountain and viewers enter a display area featuring accounts by eruption survivors. At the center is a huge, snapped-off tree trunk with bits of pumice driven into the cracks.

A scale model of the volcano sits beneath a rotunda near the entrance. Colored lights and a recorded narrative show the paths of landslides, shock waves, superheated gas and mudflows in the 1980 blast.

Along the walls are interactive video terminals, Internet links to volcano information worldwide and seismographs recording each subterranean quiver at three sites - beneath the crater, near the observatory and at Elk Rock, about six miles northwest of the peak.

Beside a window facing the peak is a plaque honoring Johnston.

One of the 15 government workers assigned to the center is a USGS scientist who will give interpretive talks and maintain a relay station that forwards signals from quake sensors to Vancouver for analysis. Until now, the telemetry station was accessible only by helicopter at a cost of about $600 an hour.

The opening of the observatory marks completion of five visitor centers here, three operated by the U.S. Forest Service, which runs the monument.

Unlike the others, the observatory probably will be closed from about late November to early April because the state Legislature rejected a $60,000 appropriation to keep the highway open all winter, said Ed Blodgett, regional construction engineer for the state Transportation Department.

Each new center has brought increased traffic, from an estimated 1.9 million 12-hour visits in 1990 to 4.2 million in 1995, the last year for which figures have been compiled, but the future is clouded by newly imposed entry fees, said Bonnie Lippitt, a monument administrator.

Some bus tours were canceled after the fees - $8 for a three-day pass and $24 for an annual pass for people 16-61, $4 and $12 for people 62 and older and free for children under 15 - were imposed this spring. Forest Service officials hope they will generate nearly $3.5 million, of which more than $2.2 million would go for monument programs.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Here are the five visitor centers along Washington 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, including road mileage east of Interstate 5 and telephone numbers. Fees for the three government sites the Mount St. Helens, Coldwater Ridge and Johnston Ridge centers are $8 for a three-day pass and $24 for an annual pass for people 16-61, $4 and $12 for people 62 and older and free for children under 15. A pass is good for all three centers and other fee areas within the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. All five centers have parking areas, restrooms and telephones. Hours vary by season. Mount St. Helens Visitor Center - Five miles in, elevation 500 feet. Completed in 1986 for $5.3 million. Displays, including a walk-through model of a volcano, provide an introduction to the monument. Operated by U.S. Forest Service. Distant view of the volcano. Book sales. Picnic tables and campsites at Seaquest State Park, across the highway. (360) 274-2100. Hofstadt Bluffs Visitor Center - 27 miles, elevation 1,400. Completed by Cowlitz County in 1995 for $2.4 million. Displays center on eruption victims and survivors. Offers first panoramic view of the volcano rising over the valley of the north fork of the Toutle River. Helicopter rides, restaurant, gift shop and picnic tables. Free. (360) 274-7750. Forest Learning Center - 33-1/2 miles, elevation 2,650. Completed in 1995 for $3.4 million by Weyerhaeuser Co. Displays show how the eruption affected timber cutting and forest management. Better panoramic view with first glimpse of the crater. Picnic tables. Free. (360) 414-3429. Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center - 43 miles, elevation 3,200. Completed in 1993 for $11 million, operated by the Forest Service. Focus is on plant and wildlife recovery. Quarter-mile Winds of Change interpretive trail. Full view of the mountain, partial view of lava dome in the crater. Restaurant and snack bar (spring-summer only), gift shop, book sales and picnic tables. (360) 274-2131. Johnston Ridge Observatory - 52 miles, elevation 4,200. Completed this year for $10.5 million, operated by the Forest Service. Theme is volcano science, including a wide-screen recreation of the eruption, worldwide volcano information via Internet links and active seismographs. Half-mile Eruption Trail (opening late summer 1997). Best mountain vista, full view of the lava dome. Book sales. Probably closed from late November to early April. (360) 274-2140.

This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Here are the five visitor centers along Washington 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, including road mileage east of Interstate 5 and telephone numbers. Fees for the three government sites the Mount St. Helens, Coldwater Ridge and Johnston Ridge centers are $8 for a three-day pass and $24 for an annual pass for people 16-61, $4 and $12 for people 62 and older and free for children under 15. A pass is good for all three centers and other fee areas within the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. All five centers have parking areas, restrooms and telephones. Hours vary by season. Mount St. Helens Visitor Center - Five miles in, elevation 500 feet. Completed in 1986 for $5.3 million. Displays, including a walk-through model of a volcano, provide an introduction to the monument. Operated by U.S. Forest Service. Distant view of the volcano. Book sales. Picnic tables and campsites at Seaquest State Park, across the highway. (360) 274-2100. Hofstadt Bluffs Visitor Center - 27 miles, elevation 1,400. Completed by Cowlitz County in 1995 for $2.4 million. Displays center on eruption victims and survivors. Offers first panoramic view of the volcano rising over the valley of the north fork of the Toutle River. Helicopter rides, restaurant, gift shop and picnic tables. Free. (360) 274-7750. Forest Learning Center - 33-1/2 miles, elevation 2,650. Completed in 1995 for $3.4 million by Weyerhaeuser Co. Displays show how the eruption affected timber cutting and forest management. Better panoramic view with first glimpse of the crater. Picnic tables. Free. (360) 414-3429. Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center - 43 miles, elevation 3,200. Completed in 1993 for $11 million, operated by the Forest Service. Focus is on plant and wildlife recovery. Quarter-mile Winds of Change interpretive trail. Full view of the mountain, partial view of lava dome in the crater. Restaurant and snack bar (spring-summer only), gift shop, book sales and picnic tables. (360) 274-2131. Johnston Ridge Observatory - 52 miles, elevation 4,200. Completed this year for $10.5 million, operated by the Forest Service. Theme is volcano science, including a wide-screen recreation of the eruption, worldwide volcano information via Internet links and active seismographs. Half-mile Eruption Trail (opening late summer 1997). Best mountain vista, full view of the lava dome. Book sales. Probably closed from late November to early April. (360) 274-2140.

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