Two years ago, chronic budget shortfalls prompted the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to permanently close the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center after just 14 years.
The decision prompted one U.S. senator to suggest yanking Mount St. Helens out of the U.S. Forest Service’s hands and shifting it into the National Park Service. Sen. Maria Cantwell subsequently backed off her demand, but some residents continue to harbor hope that the volcano will find more stable funding as Washington’s fourth national park.
Now, just as a citizen advisory committee is poised to deliver its final recommendations to Congress, the Forest Service is planning $1.2 million worth of upgrades to visitor attractions around the 110,000-acre monument.
“Interesting timing,” acknowledged Janine Clayton, the Gifford Pinchot’s new forest supervisor.
However, Clayton noted that some of the upgrades, including a $400,000 outdoor amphitheater near the Johnston Ridge Observatory, have been under discussion for years.
The Gifford Pinchot capitalized on a chance to fulfill some of its wish list at Mount St. Helens through a $15 million account intended for strategic investments. The Forest Service regional headquarters in Portland submitted three projects, including the $1.2 million requested by the Gifford Pinchot for Mount St. Helens.
Clayton credited Regional Forester Mary Wagner for making the case.
She added that the outcry over the closure of Coldwater Ridge probably helped to underscore the public interest in visitor attractions at Mount St. Helens, boosting the monument’s chances for winning the money. In addition to the $1.2 million in competitive grants, the Gifford Pinchot will tap another $500,000 designated for capital improvements.
“It really is an icon of international renown,” Clayton said.
Gifford Pinchot spokesman Chris Strebig added that the monument still faces a major backlog of maintenance projects. At Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, the cost of fixing the windows alone could reach $1 million. It is unlikely to reopen any time soon, if ever.
The new influx of money will fund the following projects:
– An amphitheater at Johnston Ridge, $400,000. Planners envision using an area at the west end of a trail fronting the observatory for a place for interpretive rangers to deliver programs. The area would be loosely the size of a similar amphitheater at Windy Ridge.
“It’s not going to be huge,” said Bill Uyesugi, recreation and facilities manager for the national volcanic monument. “But it’s a place that we can (have) interpretive talks that won’t take up all the room in the plaza, where other people are coming in to view the mountain.”
– Wiring for a food cart at Johnston Ridge, $60,000. Coldwater offered the only restaurant among the three former Forest Service visitor centers along the volcano’s main access along state Highway 504. Since it closed, the Forest Service has accommodated a food trailer powered by a diesel generator in the parking lot of the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The Forest Service is proposing to provide the cart with permanent water, electricity, sewer and phone service.
– Information kiosks and updated road signs, $70,000. Because the Forest Service has had to trim back on hiring interpretive rangers, informational kiosks could be especially useful at major intersections east and south of the volcano. Uyesugi cited the junction of Forest Roads 99 and 25 near Windy Ridge, and Forest Roads 90 and 83 near Cougar.
– Volunteer accommodations, $190,000. A growing volunteer work force means there is a growing need for toilets, tent pads, yurt pads and campfire circles at Coldwater Ridge and Cascade Peaks on the east side near Windy Ridge, officials say. A shower building, laundry facility and housing would also be provided at the Coldwater site.
– Interpreting the biological and cultural story, $130,000. As designed, the Johnston Ridge Observatory was intended to tell the geological story of Mount St. Helens. Coldwater Ridge emphasized the recovery of natural processes in the landscape ravaged by the eruption of May 18, 1980. Meanwhile, the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake emphasized the cultural history of Mount St. Helens. Now that Coldwater is closed and Silver Lake has been given over to the state parks department (which is planning to revise exhibits to highlight the state park system), officials want to add cultural and biological exhibits to the geological story at Johnston Ridge.
Other projects include relocating utility control systems out of the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center to a maintenance shop; overflow parking for Ape Cave on the south side of the volcano; a new restroom at the Siouxon Creek Trailhead; and various improvements to the Pine Creek Information Station southeast of the mountain, including converting the building from a diesel generator to solar power with battery storage and propane backup.