Friday, May 21, 2010
By now, you should have been reminded that Tuesday was the 30th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption, the best-studied volcanic eruption in history. If only the people of Pompeii had known what we know now, they ... probably would have died anyway. After all, you have to live somewhere. Still, this is an incredible natural laboratory for studying how volcanoes work.
It's also an incredible natural laboratory for understanding how nature responds to highly destructive events, the sort of laboratory Yellowstone became after its infamous forest fires eight years later. The gradual restoration after a scene of intense destruction is almost unbelievable - you really do have to observe it before you start believing. Even though you know that those beautiful mountains of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Ranier, and Mt. Hood have all done this before, it's easy to doubt that St. Helens will ever look so good again. Likewise, even though the mountain forests have done without Smokey Bear for eons and were beautiful when humans arrived, many Yellowstone-lovers couldn't come to grips with the undeniable fact that it's all happened before, will happen again, and the ugly phase isn't forever.
The laissez-faire approach to nature management hasn't been with us for very long, and has often been contested -- especially after 1988, when the National Park Service was reviled for fiddling while Yellowstone burned.* And the hands-off approach was certainly never the policy of the US Forest Service, which from the beginning has managed its forests for timber production. That's why I found my visit to Mt. St. Helens such an amusing surprise: the USFS had got religion, so to speak. The signs and exhibits explaining why nature should be allowed to take its course were relentless, and far more heavy-handed and didactic than anything I've ever seen from the NPS (and I've been in a lot of national parks). "More Catholic than the Pope," as the saying goes. Here I was, a true believer already, and I felt like a few dozen propaganda-bludgers had been let loose on me. Ah, they're so earnest when they're new to the faith.
Here's a time lapse video showing how much vegetation has returned in the last 30 years. Especially watch how the huge mudflow in the upper left disappears from view:
* To be fair, the NPS abandoned that policy in mid-summer, before the peak fire season even arrived, and fought the fires aggressively. Also to be fair, the Silver Gate and Cooke City people were angry because the fires threatened their towns. A 1989 review of the natural fire regime policy resulted in only one criticism - the NPS needed to allow a larger buffer zone near the borders and be more cautious about protecting the gateway communities.