After a decade of budget cuts and dwindling research, the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument has a new manager eager to enlist scientists to study the 1980 blast zone.
Gloria Brown, who took over at the monument in December, is making revival of research her top priority.
“Mount St. Helens monument has lost its momentum in science and research over the last few years,” she said in a recent interview with The Columbian. “We’ve got to get it back up again.
“That’s what this place is all about, a new landscape unlike anything we’ve seen. It’s a chance to learn so much that we’ve never known before.”
The volcano’s May 18, 1980, eruption destroyed 230 square miles of forest, killed 57 people and sent a cloud of ash over the region.
One of Brown’s first actions was to move information officer Peter Frenzen back to his former job as director of research at the monument.
“At the time I started in 1987, funding was winding down,” Frenzen said. “By the early ‘90s, funding for Forest Service research had been cut. I had no crew at all and there was no monitoring for long-term studies.”
Now, Frenzen is inviting university researchers to monitor the area’s recovery, and going after outside funding to do it. Projects include evaluating plants in the blast zones, looking at changes in debris-flow deposits, examining old-growth forests affected by the eruption and subsequent ash falls, and tracking the effects of elk browsing on emerging shrubs.
“There was a big surge of research right after the catastrophic eruption,” Frenzen said. “Some things could be accomplished quickly. It’s easy to monitor vegetative plots when there’s no plants.”
But now, with plants about to make the successional leap from flowers such as lupine to shrubs such as thimbleberry, Frenzen thinks it is time to focus on monitoring. He’s also planning a major collaborative research project and symposium to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the eruption.
Brown and Frenzen also want to take advantage of the site’s educational potential, offering teacher training, class field trips, providing more seminars and classes at the monument and improving interpretive signs.
Volunteers will play a role in all these changes, Brown said.
“This area has been profoundly disturbed,” Frenzen said. “It’s unlike any place we know. They think of the eruption increasingly as a historic event.
“There’s a real magic in seeing the ecosystem change before your eyes.”
Brown, who previously worked in Eugene, Ore., at the Willamette National Forest as a public information officer and later as an assistant district ranger, views the St. Helens supervisor’s job as the premier assignment in the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s my dream, the goal of a lifetime,” she said.