Efforts to revitalize Mount St. Helens has more support now that a nonprofit outdoor group got a federal permit to help develop outdoor camping, learning and stargazing opportunities at a visitor’s center overlooking Coldwater Lake.
Dennis Weber said he remembered the summers up in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest before the 1980 volcanic eruption that reshaped the landscape around Mount St. Helens.
Silver and Coldwater lakes offered places to fish, swim and hike that was plentiful and enjoyed by Weber, now a Cowlitz County commissioner, and his family.
In the years after the volcano blew its top, visitor centers attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Weber, a city council member at the time, said they were advised to add more amenities in the area or the novelty of the explosion would soon dissolve.
“You see the volcano, you see the damage, (but) there’s a limited number of trails,” Weber said. “There’s no sense in increasing access if there’s nothing to do.”
In the decades since the eruption, tourism in the area has waned. The volcanic monument gets about one-third the visitors of Mount Rainier, Weber said.
Many businesses that used to line the drive on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway have shuttered. The nearest overnight camping spots are miles from the mountain.
The U.S. Forest Service is also thinking of raising fees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest as a result of outdated and deteriorating facilities.
The three visitor centers — Coldwater Ridge, Hoffstadt Bluffs and Johnston Ridge Observatory — saw fewer people as years passed.
The county sold Hoffstadt Bluffs in 2017, with Weber telling The Daily News at the time of the sale Hoffstadt had become a money pit for the county.
Coldwater Ridge shut its doors to the public in 2007 and now serves as the Mount St. Helens Lodge & Education Center operated by the Mount St. Helens Institute.
Many say it’s long overdue to bring more amenities and recreational opportunities to the mountain.
The U.S. Forest Service manages the monument and recently gave the Mount St. Helens Institute a 30-year permit that will help redevelop the Coldwater site into a fully fledged public camping, learning and recreational experience.
“There’s been a long-term need for people to be able to stay up here,” said Ray Yurkewycz, executive director of the Mount St. Helens Institute.
The process of getting the right permits and utilities stalled ambitious plans for years, he said.
Those plans include adding what Yurkewycz calls much-needed amenities. They want to add three 40-person timber lodges and 10 four-person camping rooms for adults and families as well as an amphitheater, expand kitchen capacity, modernize electrical systems and add more programs like guided stargazing.
Yurkewycz said they have considered adding a welcome center near the front gate, complete with a local shop and cafe.
Yurkewycz said they also want the center to stay open year-round, as compared to Johnston Ridge Observatory, which is open only during the warm months.
The plan is in its early stages, but Yurkewycz said it will likely cost $35 million and could bring in 10,000 to 15,000 more tourists to the area per year.
The process will likely take years, though Yurkewycz said he hopes it will be ready by the 50th anniversary of the eruption in 2030. While they can ask for federal and local financial assistance, most of it will come from donors.
They also plan on collaborating with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Yakama Nation during the design and construction phases, according to the institute’s master plan report.
Greg Drew, owner of Drew’s Grocery Store, has worked on Spirit Lake Highway since before the eruption. Before 1980 the entire area buzzed with tourist and recreation activities, which all changed once the landscape did.
“We were really disappointed as some of the activity fell off,” Drew said.
Drew said the Toutle grocery store — which recently reopened a temporary storefront after a March fire — depends on people passing through to get to the mountain.
“When there’s more activity up toward the mountain, we definitely see that,” Drew said.
The hope is to draw people from Cowlitz County’s neighbors in Portland and Seattle, Weber said. More visitors could help the local businesses and hotels in nearby towns like Castle Rock and Toutle.
“The impact on Longview-Kelso will be pretty indirect,” Weber said.
Having another visitor center would stand as a net plus to the entire community, Drew said.
A law passed by the state Legislature this year could also help bring more people to the mountain.
Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year signed a bill that will fund an outdoor learning experience for fifth- and sixth-grade students.
The bill outlines how schools can get grants to send students to daytime or overnight trips focused on environmental topics like geology, ecology and wildlife.
“It gives them that hands-on learning experience,” Yurkewycz said.
With some students in Washington now guaranteed to have at least one outdoor learning experience, Yurkewycz said it’s the perfect chance to expand Coldwater Ridge.
Yurkewycz said this means working with local astronomy groups and educators to set up night sky-watching and camping events. They also hope to renovate and expand their kitchen so it can provide regular and healthy meals.
“We see this as an opportunity to expand our program,” Yurkewycz said. “There’s a variety of impacts that could come from this.”