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Stories from our First 45 Years—Rising from the Ashes

Posted on May 18, 2024 in Conservation News, WA Wild Blog
Stories are powerful. They inspire and activate people, and people have the power to change systems and norms to make a shared vision a reality. Washington Wild was founded on Karen Fant’s vision for Washington State to see local grassroots efforts safeguard our wild places by utilizing the Wilderness Act of 1964. After 45 years of working to make that vision a reality, we have lots of stories to tell. Following the devastating May 18, 1980 eruption, conservation advocates such as Susan Saul, fought hard to ensure Mount St. Helens was protected.  

Photo: Miles Morgan

Rising from the Ashes  

An avid outdoor recreationist and building a career dedicated to public engagement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Susan Saul attended a public meeting hosted by the Mount St. Helens Protection Association in the fall of 1977. She recalls that the group, founded in 1970, hadn’t yet achieved much public or political traction, and “I had some ideas, so I joined and then gradually took on a leadership role.”   

Under Saul’s guidance as co-chair, by 1980 the group had a proposal to protect 176,000 acres as a National Scenic Area when months later the unthinkable happened. On May 18, 1980, (Lawetlat’la) Mount St. Helens erupted, spewing a column of ash 15 miles high, blackening the sky, and unleashing a pyroclastic flow down the mountain’s north slope, decimating everything in its path.  

Following the blast, the conservation community looked to Saul for how to respond. 57 people and countless animals perished. The waters of Spirit Lake were now a black, toxic sludge. The surrounding forests and meadows, once vibrant and lush, had become a barren wasteland. Was there anything left to protect? To answer that question, Saul dedicated the summer to gathering information by organizing groups of conservationists, government officials, and scientists from across the state to survey the then-restricted blast zone by helicopter.  

And what became clear was that the eruption had presented a unique opportunity. Biologists were eager to preserve the area as a one-of-a-kind living laboratory to study how life would recolonize the blast zone. Government officials saw a chance to salvage downed timber and bring tourists to the area, creating new jobs to replace at least some of those lost to the eruption. Her mind made up, Saul redoubled efforts to build a grassroots coalition, “We needed all the help Washington Wild, and others could muster statewide to generate the support needed to protect this incredible place.” 

Photo: Daniel Rice

In 1981, this coalition submitted a new proposal to protect 216,000 acres, which was met with strong opposition. By the spring of 1982, there were three separate bills in play in Congress, each differing in their acreage and boundaries. 

Championed by Representative Don Bonker (WA-03), ultimately a bill for a 110,000-acre monument was passed by both the House and Senate. Washington Wild and the coalition threw their support behind the bill, generating strong local support, including an appeal to President Ronald Reagan from Washington Governor John Spellman. This effort ultimately propelled the proposal to the President’s desk, and on August 26, 1982, President Reagan signed the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Act into law.