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Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company
Local News : Thursday, May 18, 2000

Mount St. Helens remembered: Volcano drew 3 million visitors last year
by Joshua Robin
Seattle Times staff reporter

MOUNT ST. HELENS - In tour buses and station wagons, with strollers and with canes, from as far as England and Israel, they come to the place where massive plumes of smoke billowed 20 years ago today, commanding the world's attention.

They visit for all sorts of reasons.

Mardy Schultz, from Kenmore, has wanted to see this volcano ever since she lived in Bergen County, New Jersey, and dusted ash that had traversed 3,000 miles from her car.

Shirley Murdoch of Norfolk, England, came to see devastation from the eruption she feared had killed her aunt, who lives in Sumner, 20 years ago.

Frances Swain, from Little Rock, Ark., calls herself "a science-type person." She explored exhibits on what caused the explosion.

Three million people visited the mountain in 1999, surveying the 230-square-mile path of destruction from its eruption and subsequent mudslide. Thousands are expected this weekend when admission will be free. "We're going to be busy," said Susan Wheeler, co-owner of the 19 Mile House restaurant and gift shop. "If you go up, go up in the morning."

On a recent day at Johnston Ridge, about five miles from the crater, clouds finally lifted off the mountain and elk snacked on shrubbery poking through the pumice plain.

Schultz, 65, stood with her friend Kathryn Kennedy, 73, and contemplated the vast lunar-like valley below through oversized sunglasses with pearl-white frames.

Nearby, Bill Putaansuu, a volunteer guide who grew up when Mount St. Helens was a bucolic camping spot no one thought was dangerous, was starting up a lecture that he delivered with fire-and-brimstone fury.

He asked his audience of older tourists to picture themselves in the same spot, 20 years earlier, where they would have had only a minute to flee before being pelted with rocks hurled at more than 300 miles per hour.

"The ground is shaking!" Putaansuu screamed into the microphone strapped to his head Madonna-style. "The dust is moving with a terrible roar!"

Visits to Mount St. Helens National Volcano Monument, which is run by the U.S. Forest Service and straddles Cowlitz and Skamania counties, account for much of Cowlitz County's $90 million annual tourism revenue and pump about $15 million a year into Skamania County. About 2,400 jobs in both counties are tourism-dependent.

But locals say much more money could be made if tourists thought of the mountain as more than a day trip from Portland or Seattle.

"We're trying to break that cycle," said Mark Plotkin, director of tourism for Cowlitz County. "We're helping to bring people for a lot longer period of time, and to give them information about what they're looking at." County officials just printed a guidebook with advertisements from local businesses and are working on plans to build a small convention center in the area.

Part of the reason why tourists don't stay longer is that the roads to the mountain aren't connected. State Highway 504, the only approach to the mountain from the northwest, stops at Johnston Ridge. To get to the other side, tourists have to backtrack and drive around the mountain.

Officials want to change that. About $350,000 was allotted in this year's state budget to study whether Highway 504 could be connected with roads on the other side of St. Helens.

On the east side of the mountain, there's another problem: Forest Road 99, which starts at the Wakepish Trailer Drop and ends at the Windy Ridge Viewpoint, is open only during the summer.

"It would make a huge difference to us" to have the road open year-round, said Arlene Johnson, executive director of the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce.

But it will take a lot of lobbying to persuade Forest Service officials to extend Highway 504 and keep Forest Road 99 open all year. They have long expressed the view that the land should be kept as natural as possible. And after spending large sums to construct visitor centers, there is barely enough money for other projects. In February, the Forest Service announced that the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, located off Interstate 5 on Highway 504, would not be opened this summer. Officials reversed course only after intense lobbying.

But if only for day trips, and if only during warm weather, Mount St. Helens is popular.

Eva Carpenter, of Capistrano Beach, Calif., came to the mountain with her husband and their friends. She was in awe. "This ought to be the eighth wonder of the world," she said.

Joshua Robin's phone message number is 206-464-8255.

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