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Plant, Animal Life Abounds : Mt. St. Helens Rebirth Surprises Scientists

May 12, 1985|LARRY GREEN | Times Staff Writer

GREEN RIVER VALLEY, Wash. — A young wilderness is thriving here, where forests covering 100 square miles were blown flat and buried under a thick layer of lifeless gray ash when Mt. St. Helens erupted five years ago this week.

The primitive beginnings of life that we found when we accompanied the first ground searchers into this valley just 72 hours after that tremendous blast have multiplied and prospered.

When the volcano exploded, a furious storm of winds raced through the hills and valleys north of the mountain at up to 400 m.p.h. for 10 to 15 minutes. The heat, for miles around, reached 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now, plants and animals have reclaimed what was a desolate, primal wasteland of debris and dust with a speed that is surprising to scientists. The rate and pattern of the recovery are causing some of them to reassess conventional theories about the regeneration of natural areas.

"For some of us, it will serve as a philosophical corrective," said Jerry F. Franklin, chief plant ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Experiment Station.

Five years ago, this reporter and a Times photographer walked into this bleak valley along with relatives of loggers who had disappeared in the eruption. That first search party discovered a wasteland that seemed to have been hurled back to the time of creation and given an opportunity to begin life anew. In exploring the area weeks before the initial scientific expeditions, we found both death and life in a monochrome of gray mist and gray ash.

Survivors' Tracks

There were bodies of dead animals and, in the fresh ash, the scattered tracks of a few that had survived. A baby snake crawled at the river's edge, and on hillsides ferns were already pushing through the fine dust.

But the loggers we were searching for have never been found.

The mountain exploded on May 18, 1980, with a lateral blast to the north. On our search three days later, we moved slowly, sometimes taking hours to go only a few miles, our travel inhibited by massive barriers of fallen trees that we had to climb over or crawl under. Now, the debris has been cleared and the logs, which were scattered like match sticks, have been salvaged. Logging roads, though rough, are open.

The blast killed 36 persons. Of the 21 who were never found, at least five are believed to be buried in this valley. The rest who are still missing are presumed to be in other areas.

Now, the air of gloom and death has been replaced by the sights, sounds and scents of spring.

Ponds edged with bright green algae shimmer with activity. Insects scurry across and under the clear water as tadpoles dart in the shadows of giant cattails bowing in the breeze.

Frogs can be heard in nearby weed beds. Under a log, a furry black and brown caterpillar lounges. Armies of spiders dash as if perpetually late for appointments.

Birds are nesting in young trees.

Puzzle of Animal Tracks

At the edge of the Green River, which rushes through the narrow valley with a loud hiss, a jigsaw puzzle of animal tracks is stamped in the mud. Elk and deer, cougars and bobcats have all left impressions.

On the steep hillsides that climb toward Mt. St. Helens' cratered peak, a new generation of weeds and mountain flowers, vines and alders, ferns and young cottonwoods is poking through the 6- to 12-inch-thick layer of ash that remains. All this is taking place amid the litter of decaying stumps and splintered trees that lies like bones on a forgotten battlefield.

A helicopter trip to the summit disclosed that there is even some life on the desolate, broad, moonscape-like Pumice Plain, which spills out from the gaping mouth of the mountain's mammoth crater, about 11 miles south of this valley. Birds could be heard and insects seen during a stop near the mouth of the steaming, snow-covered volcano. There are still large areas north of the mountain's peak, where mud flows and lava reached depths of up to 600 feet, in which scientists have yet to find any plant life. However, even there, windblown insects can be found.

"The outstanding lesson for me is the incredible resilience of ecosystems, their ability to take a really major insult . . . (and) if left alone to their own devices, their ability to come back," plant ecologist Franklin said.

However, Franklin said that, although the eruption of Mt. St. Helens is often compared to a nuclear blast in terms of energy released, the ability of the surrounding region to recover from the eruptions is very different from its ability to recover from a nuclear explosion and its continuing radiation.

"What we had (with the eruption) is a single catastrophic event, whereas, following an atomic disturbance, we would have a persistent, chronic disturbance that would dramatically reduce (the region's) ability to come back," he said.

Franklin will join hundreds of other scientists at Eastern Washington University next weekend for a symposium reviewing research resulting from the eruption.

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