Mount St. Helens After the Eruption

  • By Adam M. Sowards
  • Posted 4/17/2024
  • Essay 22950
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On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted and drastically changed the surrounding environment. Despite the devastation to plant, animal, and human communities, ecological recovery developed over time. Scientists saw the landscape as an ideal place to study ecological processes, while the timber industry wanted to hasten the forest’s rebound. Weyerhaeuser Company and the Forest Service planted trees, but on the new 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, nature was allowed to replant at its own pace with scientists closely observing the results. The tensions among managers about how much intervention was permissible and warranted has been constant since the eruption. Through the years, recreationists have sometimes clamored for more access to the region. In the decades after the eruption, scientists have argued for and closely monitored how ecological systems have reconstituted themselves with minimal human intervention. The 1980 eruption provided a large-scale experiment that has taught scientists and land managers much about ecological disturbance and ecosystem management.

Devastating the Landscape

The volcano had been warning the world since March with small rumbles, and finally, on May 18, 1980, it erupted. Any list of statistics quickly becomes overwhelming and nearly incomprehensible. Temperatures reached 660 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the snow and glaciers on the mountain. Forty-seven billion gallons of water mixed with 1.4 billion cubic yards of ash and rocks to create lahars, huge mudflows. The eruption’s force pushed gases and dismantled rocks at 300 miles per hour. The mountain’s summit lost 1,314 feet. Millions of trees, stripped of bark and leaves, blew down and covered mountainsides. Trees closest to the blast simply vaporized. An estimated 4.7 billion board feet of timber disappeared or died across more than 86,000 acres. Ash shot into the air 15 miles and dropped over more than a dozen states. Property damage topped $1 billion. Fifty-seven people died.

The earthquake that produced the eruption generated the largest recorded landslide in history. It moved roughly 15 miles at speeds greater than 225 feet per second. It buried more than a dozen miles of the North Fork Toutle River by an average of 150 feet, although some places were covered in 600 feet of rocks, trees, and other debris. Large sediment carried all the way to the Columbia River, 75 miles away. More than 20 bridges along rivers were washed away by mudflows. All these changes raised or blocked outlets to some lakes and streams to create two new lakes and about 150 ponds. Spirit Lake, a small recreational haven nearby, received a brunt of the landslide. It emptied its 50 billion gallons of water, some of it shooting up 850 feet over surrounding slopes. Trees, torn from the ground, ended up in the lake, creating a tangled mass of thousands of logs, many of which remain there today. The lakebed collected enough debris to raise it nearly 200 feet and double its surface area.

What happened at Mount St. Helens wreaked immense havoc and prompted fundamental questions about how nature works and the role of people in the process. The immediate charge for governments and communities was to rescue people, minimize further risks from flooding, and shore up basic infrastructure. After the emergency began fading, the public and government officials developed other plans. Land managers, scientists, and the public were eager to investigate and start working to implement new measures across this landscape to study it, to restore timber, and to recreate across the landscape. In the decades since the eruption, Mount St. Helens has remained a place where science has been pursued to answer basic ecological questions and to advise management decisions in other disturbed landscapes, while the public has learned to recreate in a changed landscape.

Surprised by Survival and Recovery

A few days after the eruption, President Jimmy Carter flew over some of the affected areas. Speaking to reporters gathered in Portland, the president said, "There is no way to prepare oneself for the sight that we beheld this morning" (Carter, "Portland, Oregon, Remarks ...").

Not long after Carter’s remark, federal scientists dropped into the blast zone by helicopter found themselves equally unprepared. Jerry Franklin, Jim Sedell, and Fred Swanson, all scientists with the U.S. Forest Service, sought to discover what they could on the ground. Franklin and Sedell were ecologists and Swanson a geologist. They did not expect to find living things that survived the eruption. In time, they knew life would return. They believed this natural recovery would teach ecologists much. In describing the scene of that first field trip, science writer Eric Wagner noted, "They were flying toward something for which they did not yet have the language" (Wagner, 5).

Landing near Ryan Lake about 10 days after the eruption, Franklin stepped onto the ash-covered ground and saw a sliver of green about 2 inches high. Fireweed was poking its head through the ash. Nature’s recovery was already underway. Franklin and the others scanned the ground and found signs of more plants, insects, and algae; even mammals, such as pocket gophers, had survived underground. Franklin said, "All of us smart ecologists realized we didn’t have the correct working hypothesis" (Wagner, 7).

Immediately, the ecological response from living things found ways to begin re-establishing connections. What remained, whether alive or dead, were known as biological legacies. They played critical roles in how the environment evolved after the eruption. The beginnings were auspicious. More than 200 elk were observed in 1981. That same year, frogs and toads were discovered to have colonized the new lakes and ponds created by the eruption; a dozen years later, all amphibians native to the area had returned. Scientists and land managers who observed the landscape closely for decades watched how ecologies responded to the disturbance. Almost always it seemed to shift in ways they had not anticipated.

Monument Created, then Expanded

To observe the process systematically, federal agencies and politicians began considering how to manage the federal lands in the Mount St. Helens area. By autumn 1981, after considering eight alternatives, the regional forester of Region 6 of the Forest Service announced a decision to preserve 85,000 acres for education, recreation, and research. Although wilderness designation had been considered, the agency wanted greater freedom for intensive research and to bring more visitors into the area with roads and overlooks. Some timber salvage was permitted, but the main intent of the Forest Service’s plan was to leave the area alone to watch environmental responses.

Less than a year later, in August 1982, Congress created the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. In the interim, the area protected grew to 110,000 acres. Because the area rested within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Forest Service remained the agency in charge, although the monument was treated as a separate unit within the national forest.

The law creating the monument allowed the federal government to acquire lands within the boundary by exchange, donation, or purchase. Because of the legacy of federal land grants to railroads and their subsequent sales to timber companies, Burlington Northern and the Weyerhaeuser Company still owned about 32,000 acres around the mountain, including its now-blown summit. The federal government offered to exchange with the corporations lands elsewhere to acquire the entire monument and avoid a checkerboard pattern.

Besides establishing how property would be consolidated, the legislation creating the monument announced its purpose: "to protect the geologic, ecologic, and cultural resources, in accordance with the provisions of this Act allowing geologic forces and ecological succession to continue substantially unimpeded" (Public Law, 305). The purpose unmistakably focused on science, although recreational opportunities were also specifically included. Timber harvesting, except for any salvage operations already agreed to, was prohibited. According to environmental scientists who studied the area, this "set up a tension between protection of natural processes and protection of people, property, and commercial development" ("Ecological Perspectives ..."). The monument became a new protected landscape among the Washington Cascades, joining national parks and wilderness areas dedicated primarily to non-extractive purposes.

The law anticipated the quick acquisition of land. Congress thought it should be completed in 90 days. Acquiring land was easy; acquiring subsurface rights for minerals took longer. A decade and a half later, in 1998, Congress finalized the monument with the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Completion Act. This time, Congress directed the secretary of the interior, who has jurisdiction over mineral rights, to exchange mineral or geothermal interests within 60 days. President Bill Clinton approved the law on October 23, 1998.

Distinct Approaches for Forest Recovery

Mount St. Helens erupted just as environmental debates with national significance increased in the Pacific Northwest. Any discussion about forest recovery passed through that prism of emerging and conflicting values over the environment. Surrounding Mount St. Helens after the eruption were options for how to manage forests.

The millions of logs blown down amounted to an estimated 4.7 billion board feet and posed a potential problem. Worried about fire and insect outbreaks, many called for an extensive salvage logging operation. It proceeded, although not within the national volcanic monument after its boundaries were set. About 200 million board feet were eventually salvaged from the national forest. Through those operations, timber companies and loggers recovered some of the lost income after the planned harvest was cut by 44 percent. On Weyerhaeuser’s lands, the company put more than 1,000 people to work taking out up to 600 truckloads per day, a reported 850 million board feet.

About 150,000 acres of forests disappeared in the blast. By the late 1980s, though, trees were coming back, but did so in three distinct ways. The early results in these three areas began establishing new ecological patterns.

Weyerhaeuser got to work almost immediately, planting trees less than a month after the eruption on roughly 45,000 of its 68,000 acres within the blast zone. The company planted about 18 million seedlings in the ideal area, the low-elevation valleys north of the mountain. In the late 1980s in The New York Times, Dick Ford, the company’s chief forester on its St. Helens tree farm, said, "We had no idea if anything would even grow there because there was simply no precedent for something like this" ("Trees Return to St. Helen's ..."). Later, in the late 1990s, Ford said, "I remember thinking that it would never be a normal forest" (Stepankowsky). Another Weyerhaeuser forester, proud of the company’s work, claimed, "We have done a much better job than nature, and in the process shown that a forest can bounce back much more quickly than previously thought" ("Trees Return to St. Helen's ..."). Today, Weyerhaeuser continues to tout its "great story of recovery and sustainable forestry" as represented at its Mount St. Helens property (Weyerhaeuser). Reports note the seedlings were growing one to three feet a year, the ash having provided weed control. By 2009, trees stood 70 feet tall. Not everyone agreed that the company’s tree farm constituted a forest.

The Forest Service planted on about 14,000 acres of the land it managed east of the mountain. Those trees numbered fewer than Weyerhaeuser’s efforts but still amounted to 9 million trees. This experiment served aesthetic and other reasons, not a commercial focus. In that area, federal foresters identified more than 150 plant species in the area a mere eight years after the eruption obliterated it. Meanwhile, within the national monument, mainly northwest of the peak, nature planted the next forest across 110,000 acres. Progress there was much slower with seeds having to travel some distance. "Nature takes its own time," said a federal forester quoted in The New York Times ("Trees Return to St. Helen's ...").

Having sites that were managed differently provided valuable data for ecologists. Besides the different planting methods, some areas were salvage logged, too. Studies have shown that the salvaged sites contained less biodiversity than those left alone. Scientists also discovered that the ash functioned as an insecticide and reduced flammability. The sites planted for commercial harvest grew rapidly, but environmentalists criticized them for being less abundant in species. Researchers at Mount St. Helens also cast doubt on some of the timber industry's beliefs that clearcutting had environmental benefits. This research applied wherever debates around clearcutting appeared, demonstrating the extensive influence of post-eruption science conducted at Mount St. Helens. 

Intervening Beyond Forests

Fears of further flooding forced managers to act, too. Downstream communities devastated by floods after the eruption wanted protection. For several years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controlled the higher lake level of Spirit Lake by pumping through a pipeline and then using a tunnel through bedrock. These construction projects were tradeoffs to protect communities while interfering with natural recovery. These and other human barriers – sediment-retention structures – blocked anadromous fish from getting upstream in the North Fork Toutle River, so a fish collection and transportation system was put in place in 1989. Someone illegally stocked Spirit Lake with rainbow trout, because one was discovered in the lake in 1993. These interventions seemed necessary to safeguard downstream communities and property and to help fish recover.

Other efforts during the early post-eruption decades showed the challenges of experimenting in such a large natural system. Some interventions went awry. An early aerial reseeding project by the Soil Conservation Service in summer 1980 cast exotic grasses on steep slopes. Erosion lost many seeds almost immediately. Wind also blew seeds off the target, where mouse populations ate them, and the rodent population exploded. Subsequently, the mice ran out of food, so they attacked tree bark. These sorts of unintended consequences are common but not always visible or anticipated well when managers draw up plans. This aerial reseeding proved so disastrous it had prompted scientists to mobilize in favor of the national monument protection.

Scientists recognized the possibility for observation immediately, and what they learned shaped how they understand post-disturbance ecology, including what they would advise land managers do in analogous circumstances. The ecologist Virginia Dale studied Mount St. Helens's recovery from the start and drew important lessons from her research. A big one was that humans do not need to clean up after a natural disturbance. "Many times when we have these large disturbances money is spent because that’s what we know how to do. We don’t always spend it in a very wise fashion. We often spend it to clean up things. Nature’s not clean" (Nash, 574). Dale cited research that places where vegetation remained came back with greater diversity than places that were cleaned. "That messiness is part of nature," said Dale (Nash, 574).

Leaving nature alone may be desirable from the perspective of scientific curiosity, but messiness is not always welcome, and the public often held other priorities.

Public Recreation

For the public’s safety, Mount St. Helens and its surroundings were initially closed to general public access. The year before the eruption, more than half a million visitors recreated on and around the mountain. By 1983, the public could travel to Windy Ridge, and three years after that, climbers with permits could climb to the summit. Many of the tourists who began visiting Mount St. Helens wanted to see the forest-in-the-making, as well as learn about volcanoes generally and the Mount St. Helens eruption specifically. Watching the environment recover and evolve became an attraction in the region, something arguably worth more than commercial timber that once dominated the economy. In 2010, Peter Frenzen, who served as the monument scientist, explained, "Tourism with an education component is growing" ("The Role of Science ...").

Over the years, several visitor centers, interpretive sites, and observation points were constructed for the public, but not without problems. In the mid-1990s, budgets required the Forest Service to close its visitor center at Silver Lake most of the week. The shortfall grew to $2.5 million, and the agency contemplated shutting down services for visitors entirely. Meanwhile, in the three years since 1994, visits increased 230 percent. To help the situation, the agency charged an entrance fee. Around the time of this debate, Johnston Ridge Observatory opened in 1997. It offered educational exhibits to the public and scientific data for specialists. A landslide in 2023 temporarily closed access to the observatory. Despite these setbacks, more than a million people a year visit the monument’s various interpretive sites.

Before the eruption, the area had been popular among hunters. The national monument restricted hunting, which helps explain how the elk herd around Mount St. Helens became Washington’s largest. Elk returned to the blast zone almost immediately. Their hooves broke through the ash to help create places for seeds to flourish. The new plants attracted more elk in a symbiotic relationship. However, there were downsides. Elk spread non-native species and began overgrazing the relatively meager vegetation. Elk began starving in the early 2000s, something that encouraged Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to provide winter feed, which not everyone in the public appreciated. The elk numbers complicated an unimpeded ecological succession given the complicated dynamics they took advantage of. Action and reaction were hard to separate.

Some activists have pushed to turn the monument into a national park. Lack of funding from the Forest Service made some think a transfer to the National Park Service could boost funding and revenues. Others wanted the Forest Service to open it up to more use. After 30 years, some local residents grew tired of the focus on science. They wanted to stop studying the place, or at least stop restricting recreation. "You don’t need 20,000 acres to see how vegetation comes back," said one resident, quoted by The New York Times ("Clash Over Rebirth ..."). Scientists have resisted this approach, arguing they need to monitor and investigate from the smallest scale to the entire landscape to draw adequate conclusions. Plus, to them, 30 years is a blink of an eye. Frenzen, the Forest Service scientist at the monument, said, "The plant ecology and the forest ecology are only beginning. We have only seen the opening chapter" ("Clash Over Rebirth ...").

Science Continues

If that is the case, the opening chapter has been revealing. On the 30th anniversary of the eruption in 2010, the research program at Mount St. Helens counted approximately 50 ongoing projects and was characterized as "vibrant" (Nash, 571). Scientists have been repeatedly surprised. Factors that ecologists expected to be strong determinants, such as elevation and soil, played smaller roles. "Instead, chance dominates: which seeds might be blown or carried in, what species are nearby or distant, and the 'biological legacy' factors that survived the disturbance," according to Steve Nash in BioScience.

The collective work done in post-disturbance Mount St. Helens challenged ecology’s theories of change and reframed the proper way to think of it. The forester Jerry Franklin wrote that, "Mount St. Helens is not about 'recovery' to some future forested state. It is about its natural evolution, its rich array of organisms and processes, and its contributions to our ecological understanding. Mount St. Helens can teach us to think better about events. It can also help us construct natural resource policies based on logic and on 'good' science" (Franklin, 69). In the fourth decade after the eruption, scientists continued to study the aftermath, a unique opportunity to study ecological succession. In an age of climate change, lessons drawn from the disturbance of an eruption offer useful insights. Scientists predict more natural disasters, like fires and floods, so the insights gathered at Mount St. Helens can help understand post-disturbance recoveries and management options.

Environmental scientists advised many decision makers in the years following the eruption, even if their advice was not always followed. Although mainly advisory, environmental scientists helped develop and clarify management options. Their perspective is often long-term, which is not always an easy fit with political planning.

On the 25th anniversary, a gathering of scientists and other creative thinkers spent time at Mount St. Helens. Their reflections appeared in a book, In the Blast Zone. One of the scientists who had studied the aftermath from the beginning, Charlie Crisafulli, concluded his essay with an apt description of work like his and its importance: "What we record as scientific data is a very small sampling of a rigorous and plentiful life outdoors. And then we pass that sampling of knowledge on to others through the information web of science. Although we’re just passing through, the science keeps accumulating, getting richer and more abundant, feeding more and more insights" (In the Blast Zone, 16).

"Stories in nature are once-upon-a-time stories, with slow, winding plots and surprise twists that evolve in the telling and are never finished," wrote Adelheid Fischer in an essay about Mount St. Helens photographs (Fischer). This an apt description for what Mount St. Helens is revealing to scientists and the larger public. The incomprehensible landscape that President Carter viewed in the immediate aftermath of the May 1980 eruption has changed with every season. Each change has forced scientists and the public to adjust their expectations. Often touted as a natural laboratory, Mount St. Helens has been that and more.


Rob Carson, Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2000); Steve Nash, “Making Sense of Mount St. Helens,” BioScience 60, No. 8, September 2010, 571-75; Adelheid Fischer, “What Happens After the Worst Happens?” Places Journal, March 13, 2018, accessed March 13, 2024 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Mount St. Helens erupts on May 18, 1980” (by Greg Lange), “Timberland Ownership in Washington to 1900,” (by Adam M. Sowards) (; Jimmy Carter, “Portland, Oregon Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Following an Inspection Tour of Areas Damaged by the Mount St. Helens Eruption, May 22, 1980,” The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, accessed March 5, 2024 (; Lisa Song, “Mount St. Helens: A World Apart?” High Country News, March 14, 2011, accessed March 5, 2024; Andre Stepankowsky, “The Greening of Mount St. Helens,” Ibid., December 8, 1997, accessed March 5, 2024 (; “Devastated Volcanic Area to Be Preserved by U.S.,” The New York Times, October 16, 1981, p. A-16; Timothy Egan, “Trees Return to St. Helens, But Do They Make a Forest?” Ibid., June 26, 1988, p. 1; Cornelia Dean, “Clash Over Rebirth of Mt. St. Helens,” Ibid., August 17, 2009, accessed March 6, 2024 (; Public Law 97-243, 97th Congress, 96 Stat. 301-09, accessed March 5, 2024 (; Public Law 105-279, 105th Congress, 112 Stat. 2690-93, accessed March 15, 2024 (; “Acts Approved by the President,” The American Presidency Project, accessed March 12, 2024 (; Eric Wagner, After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020); “Mount St. Helens 30 Years Later: A Landscape Reconfigured,” PNW Science Update, No. 19, Spring 2010, pp. 1-3; “Cascading Phenomena,” Ibid., 4-8; “The Role of Science in Managing Mount St. Helens,” Ibid., 9, accessed March 12, 2024 (; NASA Earth Observatory, “Life Reclaims Mount St. Helens,” October 20, 2013, accessed March 12, 2024 (; Weyerhaeuser, “Forest Management,” accessed March 14, 2024 (; Weyerhaeuser, “Mount St Helens,” accessed February 21, 2024 (; J. H. Titus and E. Householder, “Salvage Logging and Replanting Reduce Understory Cover and Richness Compared to Unsalvaged-Unplanted Sites at Mount St. Helens, Washington,” Western North American Naturalist, Vol. 67, 2007, pp. 219–31, accessed March 12, 2024 ([219:SLARRU]2.0.CO;2); Virginia H. Dale, Frederick J. Swanson, and Charles M. Crisafulli, “Ecological Perspectives on Management of the Mount St. Helens Landscape,” in Ecological Responses to the 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens, edited by Dale, Swanson, and Crisafulli (New York: Springer, 2005): 277-86; Charlie Crisafulli, “Change, Survival, and Revival: Lessons from Mount St. Helens,” in In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens, eds. Charles Goodrich, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Frederick J. Swanson (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2008) 10-16; Jerry F. Franklin, “Evolutionary Impacts of a Blasted Landscape,” in In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens, eds. Charles Goodrich, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Frederick J. Swanson (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2008) 62-69.

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