Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of the most destructive volcanic eruption in the history of the United States – the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens in southwest Washington State.
Last year we got to do some touring and hiking around beautiful and impressive Mount Saint Helens. Here is an article about that adventure that originally appeared in the Enterprise-Journal newspaper soon after we returned.
In May of 1980, Mount Saint Helens erupted, killing 57 people, destroying everything northwest of the mountain for 200 square miles, and spreading ash for hundreds of miles across the United States.
Nowadays, as you’re approaching Mount Saint Helens from the west along Washington Highway 504, you drive through several tiny communities including Castle Rock, Silver Lake, Toutle, and Kid Valley. These communities were right along the southern edge of the blast zone and barely escaped the brunt of the eruption. Then you pass into the actual blast zone surrounding the North Toutle river valley.
President Jimmy Carter described the devastation of the blast zone, “It’s the worst thing I have ever seen… It had been described to me earlier, but it was much worse … Someone said it was like a Moonscape but it’s much worse than anything I’ve ever seen in pictures of the Moon’s surface.”
Just before you reach the Johnston Ridge Observatory, Weyerhaeuser has built an impressive Forest Learning Center dedicated to the memory of the 57 people killed in the 1980 eruption and to the honor of the hundreds of forest workers who helped to rehabilitate the forest. The Learning Center has a historical movie, museum, and a beautiful overview of the Toutle River valley and the distant volcano.
When Saint Helens erupted it blew down almost 100 square miles of the Noble fir, Douglas fir, hemlock, and Eastern red cedar that was growing on the slopes northwest of the mountain. Nearly 63000 acres of that was harvest-ready timber.
More than a thousand Weyerhaeuser workers leapt into an urgent recovery and salvage operation that removed about 600 truckloads of downed timber per day for most of two years.
That sounded like a lot when I heard it, but not working in or around forestry I had no way to know just how much until I ran across a buddy of mine who is a forester for Weyerhaeuser. He said he thought that somewhere on the order of 500 truckloads are harvested from all of Mississippi each day and that it is quite a logistical feat to do that much.
So a thousand workers hauling 600 loads per day for 2 years really is monumental!
According to Weyerhaeuser, that salvage operation recovered 850 million board-feet of lumber, which they say is enough to build 85000 three-bedroom homes. I wonder just how many early- to mid-1980’s homes were built with wood from Mount Saint Helens?
But Weyerhaeuser’s efforts were not finished after that Herculean 2-year salvage effort. They had yet to replant – and nobody really knew anything about growing trees in areas covered with inches-to-feet of volcanic ash.
Their forest scientists did test plantings and determined that they could grow healthy trees if the roots were planted in the natural soil underlying the ash – so then an army of forest workers dug through that hundred square-mile field of ash and replanted millions of seedlings by hand.
Now, almost 40 years later, some of those seedlings are 70 feet tall and ready for a new cycle of harvesting and replanting.
Weyerhaeuser is careful to maintain their forest resources by only harvesting 2-3 percent of their timber per year in the Pacific Northwest, and by immediate rehabilitation and replanting of the harvested areas. This is the definition of a sustainable resource – one that can be regenerated within about one generation.
During our recent trip to Mount Saint Helens, I was, of course, impressed by the destructive geologic power of the volcano – but I was equally impressed by the beauty of the second growth forest and by Weyerhaeuser’s careful stewardship of the natural resources.
Everybody knows that a volcano can kill and destroy, but seeing the rebirth and regrowth of an utterly devastated forest was really special.