The helicopter floats above the mudflow created when Mount St. Helens erupted with the force of several atomic bombs one Sunday morning in May, 1980. The spent volcano lies ahead of us, still covered with the gray ash that spewed forth from the summit. I look below, expecting to find nothing but the cement-like mud created when the volcano's ash mixed with the Toutle River to form a steamroller of destruction. The gray mud is there but, much to my surprise, so are tall grasses and herds of elk.
In fact, more than 3,000 Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk roam the plains created by the mudflow. Moreover, life has never been so good for them in the state of Washington. Without the forests shading the mountain's flanks, grass grows abundantly. Today, for the elk, food is plentiful and predators few.
I've come to view the aftermath of one of the most destructive acts of nature--and I'm surprised to find a story of resilience and rejuvenation. What Mother Nature takes away, she also returns. The eruption wrecked one ecosystem but left behind the makings of another. Signs of renewal are evident everywhere in the 110,000 acres that Congress set aside in 1982 for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
STARK CONTRAST. This is also a story of how man can help Mother Nature overcome devastation. Weyerhaeuser Co., which lost 68,000 acres of trees in the blast, is making a determined effort to wrestle the land back from the volcano's grasp. The company has spent seven years and more than $66 million replanting trees on 45,500 acres. The remaining acreage was traded to the government and is now part of the monument. Weyerhaeuser got untouched timberland in return.
From the air, there's a stark contrast at the property line dividing the monument from the Weyerhaeuser site. On the monument side, you still see that famous, harrowing image: thousands of fallen trees, resembling toothpicks dumped out of their box onto the steep hills. On closer look from the helicopter window, however, I spot shrub-like cottonwood, red alder, and willow saplings holding onto the worn hillsides. They've sprung up on their own. Colorful wildflowers such as red fireweed and blue lupine also thrive. But it's a slow start. Mother Nature is expected to take 200 years before she starts to form an old-growth forest, and 500 years before that forest reaches maturity.
Weyerhaeuser isn't waiting half a millennium, however. It wants a timber crop for this lifetime. So what appears from the helicopter window as green fuzz is a carpet of 18.4 million young Douglas and noble fir trees that Weyerhaeuser has planted. They'll be ready to harvest in just 50 years.
On the ground, I drive along the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway for a down-to-earth look at the two types of reforestation. On this October day, the Weyerhaeuser forests bordering the road are bright green, but farther up, near the Coldwater Ridge, the shrubs are turning to gold, red, and sienna. Mount St. Helens appears around the corner, and its contours resemble the old hiking boot I laced up this morning: brown and ragged on the sides, with the landslide down the center looking like a shoe tongue hanging out.
I stop at the Forest Learning Center, one of four visitor centers along the rebuilt road where curiosity seekers once gathered for a glimpse of the restless volcano before it erupted. This center is operated by Weyerhaeuser and run by veteran Weyerhaeuser forester Dick Ford. The hordes of summer tourists are tapering off, and Ford has time to talk before the next bus full of schoolkids arrives. He'll tell them about Weyerhaeuser's role in the recovery. When the Mount St. Helens explosion occurred, he was Weyerhaeuser's forest supervisor, so he knows the story firsthand.
BACKBREAKING. On the Friday before the volcano blew, Ford and his crew were mopping up a clear-cut. He wanted to burn the debris, but the torch wouldn't light. So Ford told his men to take a long weekend. If the torch had worked, he would have been working on Sunday when the volcano blew. "I would have been a victim," Ford says. "Instead, I was harvesting clams on the beach." Fifty-seven others weren't so lucky.
Ford refused to go up to the blast zone for six months, and when he did, he was appalled. "It was beyond description, especially Spirit Lake. The trees and soil were gone, everything was gone. It was decimated."
He wanted to make the area green and growing again. So Ford became Weyerhaeuser's reforestation forester, overseeing the tree-planting in what was essentially a gigantic clear-cut. Since seeds are vulnerable to erosion and animals, Ford's crews were assigned the backbreaking work of hand-digging holes for each of the seedlings--11 million Douglas fir, 7 million noble fir, and 50,000 lodgepole pines. The company drew on scientific expertise collected since the early 1970s, when it launched a study of forest life cycles. Dead trees still standing after the eruption, for instance, were left to provide shelter for birds. Many of the seedlings, developed in Weyerhaeuser greenhouses, were picked for their Arnold Schwarzenegger genes to resist root disease and erosion.
The green stands of new growth, some already 35 to 40 feet high, prove Weyerhaeuser's contention that man can improve on nature, Ford tells me. "Basically, we just sped up the recovery process," he says.
KEEPING WATCH. Six miles down the road, the staff at the monument isn't hurrying anything. The landscape is brown. Growth is sparse, and dead trees litter the ground. Peter Frenzen, monument staff scientist, explains that his job is to observe, not to tinker with the recovery. He's an expert on volcanoes. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, he studied the mudflow created when nearby Mount Rainier erupted some 5,800 years ago.
"What makes Mount St. Helens unique is that it is the one volcano that erupted in an area accessible to many scientists and researchers," Frenzen tells me. He plays host to them and to tourists. Along with studying plant regrowth here, Frenzen keeps watch over the 1 million visitors to Mount St. Helens each year. He makes sure they don't step off the paths and interfere with nature's work. A rock taken as a souvenir, he says, means the elimination of a protected place for an insect that could scatter seeds. A crushed flower means a tiny bit less pollen.
One of the most amazing discoveries after the blast was how much life remained. "The plants and animals left are the most important [elements] for starting the next ecosystem," Frenzen explains. "People tend to be tidy, but nature is not like that. It is very chaotic." While a salamander's habitat of cool forest shade was destroyed, the open blast zone is great for coyotes. What others view as destruction, Frenzen sees as giving the wheel of life a big spin.
As I view this spin of the wheel, I wonder what story will unfold with time, as natural regeneration catches up with man's efforts. Right now, Weyerhaeuser's approach makes for a neat and tidy site. But nature works on a much grander scale, creating a forest man can only envy. Ultimately, it's up to the 40,000-year-old Mount St. Helens to shape its landscape.