Rebuilding a road to prosperity

Ex-timber town's plan to resurrect a buried highway worries conservationists

  • Map of Mount St. Helens National Monument

    Diane Sylvain
 

PACKWOOD, Wash. - With his meaty hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, Hoy Baker sits in the town's only convenience store, talking about a life spent hauling Northwest lumber from coast to coast.

"I went just about everywhere," he says, rattling off states from every corner of the country. "Oh yeah, it was a lot of drivin'. But at least there were jobs."

Like many living in the Cascades, Baker built a long career around timber - 44 years, to be exact - only to see it dry up with the rest of the industry. The Packwood sawmill, which operated for generations as the largest employer in town, closed two years ago, putting 406 people out of work. Since then, most of the workers have left town, the main drag is peppered with abandoned buildings, and the only doctor has packed his bags.

"On my street," Baker says, echoing the woes of other depressed timber towns in the shadow of Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, "three of the five houses are for sale."

But Packwood residents and nearby townspeople have their hopes set on a new economic road.

Baker and a group of local business owners and county commissioners want the state to build a new road across the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. They say the road would bring business from some of the three million visitors that flock to see the most active volcano in the Lower 48. The state has shown some support of the study, but opponents, including environmentalists and the federal government, are flabbergasted. Scientists say the area could experience intermittent eruptive activity for several decades.

"I originally thought it was a joke," says Susan Jane Brown of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, an Olympia-based conservation group. "Who would want to plan a major highway through a volcanically and seismically active blast zone of a volcano?"

Barking up the wrong tree?

Before Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980, State Route 504 gave drivers from Interstate 5 a direct route around the mountain to a connecting highway. Most of that road is now buried under water and ash. The remaining 52-mile stretch, finally rebuilt in 1997, dead-ends at a crater overlook and, according to surrounding counties, cuts off potential tourist business on the other side of the monument.

The idea of extending or rebuilding all of Route 504 has been kicking around for years. In 1998, four counties convinced the Legislature and the U.S. Forest Service to pony up $400,000 to study the possibility of extending the road. The study, finished earlier this year, winnowed a list of 14 potential routes to two: one cutting through the monument, connecting to Highway 12 and towns like Packwood; the other curving through forestland mostly owned by timber giant Weyerhaeuser.

The first option is the most popular with Packwood residents.

"There's no question it would make it a lot more convenient for visitors, and of course it would be advantageous for us," says Anne Hubka, administrative director for Destination Packwood, a group of Packwood business owners. "But we also realize it's going to be an uphill battle."

Hubka is right. Not only would the road be expensive - up to $10 million for environmental studies and millions more to build it - but it would also run into rough political waters.

Wildlife biologists say punching a road through the monument would affect nearly a dozen animals listed under the Endangered Species Act, as well as wetlands, habitat for eagle, grizzly bear and salmon, and the fragile Pumice Plain created by the brunt of the 1980 eruption.

"If there's an environmental issue you can think of, it's out there," says Brian McMullen, the Washington Department of Transportation's leading engineer on the project.

The area is also one of the best research stations in the world for learning about volcanic activity and how nature recovers from a devastating blast. About 30 scientists have signed a letter opposing the road, which they say could interfere or destroy $10 million worth of research.

"It's been a living laboratory for 20 years," says Tom Knappenberger, spokesman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which operates the monument. "Carving a road through the heart of this research area doesn't make any sense."

Although the U.S. Forest Service participated in the first studies, the agency says a new road shouldn't be built through the monument and the idea of further study should be dropped. On top of concerns about compromising safety and research, the agency says the road will be too expensive to maintain. Knappenberger says it will cost an estimated $1.2 million a year to operate the new, seasonally open road, the same amount the agency spends each year to keep up the other 4,000 miles of roads in the forest.

There are also questions about whether the new road would actually reap the economic benefits that supporters hope for. Although good data was hard to come by, state officials' most optimistic estimates showed that only 55 to 71 new jobs would be created in each county, and at worst, only one or two jobs.

But Lewis County Commissioner Richard Graham says the road is sorely needed and something that should have been done when Route 504 was rebuilt a few years ago.

"It was supposed to be there all along," he says.

Four of the six counties near the monument have agreed to pursue funding for a full-blown environmental impact statement. They're hoping the federal government will cough up $5 million for the work.

Graham says the counties are only looking at whether this project is actually viable.

"That's all we're asking: Are we barking up the wrong tree?" Graham says.

"We've all agreed that if it's not feasible, then we're not going to push for it anymore."

But for Hoy Baker back at the convenience store in Packwood, the road ahead is one worth fighting for.

"Tourism. That's it. That's all we have."

Mike Stark is a traveling correspondent, based in Astoria, Ore.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Tom Knappenberger, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, 360/891-5005;
  • Brian McMullen, Washington Department of Transportation, 360/905-2032;
  • Anne Hubka, Destination Packwood, [email protected]
  • Peter Frenzen, USFS scientist, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, 360/247-3935.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mike Stark

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