Mount Saint Helens National Monument & the Logging of Ancient Forests

Paul Cienfuegos’ July 12th, 2016 Commentary on KBOO Evening News


(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at,, or subscribe via ITunes. Listen to this one HERE.)


Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.


I just returned from a nine-day backpack trip circumnavigating Mt St Helens on the 28-mile long Loowit Trail. We hiked the trail for five days and did local exploring and just hanging out for another four days. It was a glorious and exhausting experience.


I now have a much better sense of the brute force of a full-scale volcanic eruption close-up. The north side of the mountain collapsed in the eruption in May of 1980, in what was the largest landslide ever recorded in the world, but there were many smaller landslides that took out other portions of ancient forest all the way around the mountain. In total, 52,000 acres of forest were blown down, and an additional 24,000 acres saw trees still standing but killed by the heat of the blast. By chance, at the moment of the eruption, I was camped across the Columbia River from Longview, Washington, so I was a direct witness of what transpired on that fateful day, when a tidal wave of mud, trees, and melted snow and ice cascaded down the mountain, following the Toutle River drainage, and took out Interstate 5 and a portion of the town of Longview.


Mt St Helens was protected as a 110,000 acre National Monument in 1982, two years after the eruption. Almost immediately afterwards, corporate executives proposed a massive “salvage logging” operation in vast areas of forest adjacent to the mountain that had been heavily impacted by the blast, but that lay just outside of the proposed National Monument’s boundaries. Salvage logging is the cutting down of dead standing trees. Most of that land was owned by the Weyerhaeuser Corporation or Burlington Northern Timberlands Corporation, or was managed by the Forest Service or the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Salvage logging began in late summer 1980, just a few months after the eruption. The logging companies then replanted just three commercially valuable species of trees in those areas - Noble Fir, Doug Fir, and Western White Pine.


Researchers have studied the ecological impact in the blast zone of areas that were salvage logged and commercially replanted vs areas where the dead standing trees were left as part of the ecological framework and no replanting took place. As you might well imagine, the healthier landscapes today are the ones that were left to heal themselves, with no intrusion by commercial interests.


According to a 2007 study by Jonathan Titus, “Salvaged and replanted plots had significantly lower herb and shrub cover, richness, diversity, litter depth, downed woody debris, nitrate, and phosphate. Salvaged-replanted sites also had significantly more stumps, bare area, and moss cover than unsalvaged plots.”


There’s an enormous difference between a natural forest that regenerates itself vs a tree farm of just one or a few tree species planted and managed by a logging corporation to maximize profit for shareholders. In essence, it’s the colonizing of an entire landscape, with little regard for the needs of any of the other creatures who are trying to survive there. And as we walked all the way around Mt St Helens on the Loowit Trail, tree farms and clearcuts were visible everywhere.


If we lived in a truly democratic society, rather than a “democracy theme park”  - the wonderful term coined by my colleague Jane Anne Morris - We the People would never allow this critical decision-making to be in the hands of logging corporation executives. If we’re being honest with ourselves, the fact that mono-crop tree planting and clearcut logging are still being allowed today on our public lands is obscene. And just another indication of how disconnected We the People are from the key decisions that affect all of us on this one round planet we all share.


Is this the best we can do? Of course not! Imagine what it might look like if instead of handing land use decision-making to the Forest Service and logging corporations, We the People made these decisions directly and deliberatively, and implemented them via county and state ballot initiatives. Mt St Helens is in Skamania County, Washington. Much of the impacted forest nearby is in Cowlitz County, Washington. Imagine the people of these two counties deciding, via the ballot box, to initiate a community-owned and managed ecoforestry program on the landscape outside of the National Monument’s boundaries. Imagine a Community Rights process that replaces totalitarian decision-making processes made by unaccountable and unelected corporate executives, with a transparent decision-making process that involves the impacted communities.


Perhaps one day this ecoforestry vision will become a reality. Locally owned and managed lumber mills and secondary wood manufacturing industries will reopen and offer living wage jobs to local residents. Local economies will once again thrive. And tree farms and clearcuts will no longer be visible from the Loowit Trail that loops around the mountain. If We the People are truly committed to building a democratic society, this is something we could achieve in the next decade. I say it would be well worth the effort. What do you think?


You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.


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