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Originally published October 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 25, 2007 at 11:58 AM

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Mount St. Helens visitor center soon closing for good

Just 14 years ago, a gleaming new visitor center here attracted dignitaries by the bus load. Heralded as a worthy gateway for Mount St. Helens, the $11.5 million Coldwater...

The Columbian

COLDWATER RIDGE, Wash. — Just 14 years ago, a gleaming new visitor center here attracted dignitaries by the bus load.

Heralded as a worthy gateway for Mount St. Helens, the $11.5 million Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center featured state-of-the-art displays just eight miles from the volcano's crater.

Two members of Congress joined the chief of the U.S. Forest Service and hundreds of guests who crowded into the atrium, down the hall and out the front door. Cars jammed all 350 parking spaces, and they lined a half-mile of the newly reconstructed Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

On an overcast day last week, Ted Stubblefield stood in the visitor center's empty atrium and recalled those better times.

Stubblefield, who retired eight years ago as the supervisor of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and now lives in the Ridgefield area, served as master of ceremonies for the grand opening on May 15, 1993. He's disappointed that the Forest Service, now strapped for cash, has chosen to permanently close the center after the last visitor leaves on Nov. 5.

"It's such an incredible spot," he said, gazing out toward the cloud-shrouded volcano. "I feel privileged and honored to have spent some time here."

Stubblefield laments the closure as another symptom of a throwaway society, arguing that the state's congressional delegation hasn't done enough to protect the public's investment. He contends that if it was important enough for Congress to establish the 110,000-acre national volcanic monument, as it did in 1982, it deserves a stable source of funding every year. He also suggested another use be found for the building, perhaps as a base for outdoor excursions or even a hotel.

Building and money woes

Once considered world-class, Coldwater is now showing signs of age.

Stubblefield noticed frost forming within several window panes, which were failing to withstand the cold, windy environment in the volcano's blast zone. Forest Service officials figure fixing the windows would cost up to $1 million, and that's not the only maintenance issue plaguing the center.

Yellow caution tape blocked one door, where a hydraulic door closer hangs loosely. Stubblefield noticed cracks in the concrete outside, along with technological problems inside. Visitors used to watch a 6 ½-minute overview of the eruption and landscape's recovery, but the Forest Service can't find replacements for the 32 videodisc projectors that are now wearing out.

"Where do you find projectors with trays anymore?" Stubblefield said. "It's all CDs."

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Rather than pouring money into the center, the Forest Service has opted to shut it down.

Monument Manager Tom Mulder, who in April announced the Forest Service's decision to permanently close Coldwater Ridge, said the agency intends to focus on a lower-key approach rather than "wowing people with infrastructure and visitor centers."

Coldwater is not the only visitor center on the west side of Mount St. Helens.

The Forest Service opened the Johnston Ridge Observatory in 1997 after the state Department of Transportation added a nine-mile extension to the federally funded $195 million Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

Over the past three years, the Forest Service's regional and national offices have contributed a temporary $400,000 annual subsidy to the monument. The subsidy ran out with the federal fiscal year that began last October, and the Gifford Pinchot has been eating through a reserve fund ever since. Earlier this year, after a final appeal to Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., the agency announced it intended to close the center for good.

With four other visitor centers along the highway — including the center at Silver Lake, which the Forest Service turned over to the state parks department earlier this year — agency officials contend that trying to keep Coldwater open in a tight budget amounts to throwing good money after bad.

"Between Johnston Ridge and Coldwater Ridge, we have more visitor center capacity than the public can reasonably use," said Mark Rey, the undersecretary of agriculture who oversees the Forest Service.

Asked about Rey and Mulder's comments, Stubblefield looked askance: What would you expect them to say?

"This isn't a surprise that there are this many facilities up here," he said. "It was planned that way."

Coldwater is much larger than the Johnston Ridge center, and it provides a restaurant for motorists who have made the 52-mile journey from Interstate 5 in Castle Rock to the dead end at Johnston Ridge. Coldwater's exhibits emphasize the ecological recovery of the landscape, while the Johnston Ridge Observatory focuses on geological forces driving activity at the steadily erupting volcano.

After Coldwater closes on Nov. 5, the closest visitor center to the mountain will be 16 miles west at Cowlitz County's Hoffstadt Bluff Visitor Center.

The Forest Service closes Johnston Ridge for the season on Sunday, Oct., 28, and Weyerhaeuser Co. closes its Forest Learning Center 10 miles west of Coldwater at the end of the month.

Coldwater remains a popular site for the public, despite the lure of Johnston Ridge.

Out of the 386,000 estimated visitors who traveled the west side of Mount St. Helens in 2006, the latest year available, the Gifford Pinchot estimates that almost as many headed to Coldwater as Johnston Ridge. Scientists have long worried about the risk of thousands of visitors disrupting the landscape's natural recovery, and the existence of both centers has helped to thin the crowd at any one place.

Stubblefield isn't surprised that Coldwater's popularity endures despite the increasingly obvious maintenance backlog.

"Most people, when they walk through that door, their mouth kind of drops," he said.

Because Congress has in recent years forced the Forest Service to pay to fight wildfires out of its baseline budget, Stubblefield and other retirees contend that the agency now must carve money out of its budget to pay firefighters.

"The recreation program suffers," he said.

Since the day it opened, Stubblefield has always felt a personal connection and responsibility for the Coldwater center. He liked visiting Coldwater Ridge without his official Forest Service uniform, watching people's reactions to the exhibits and chatting with visitors about their experience. During one such visit, Stubblefield was appalled to see litter scattered below the viewing platform. A manager explained that it was up to a crew of contractors to pick up litter. Unsatisfied with that response, Stubblefield spent a half-hour plucking litter himself.

"I don't want people coming up here from Germany and looking over the edge and seeing garbage," he said.

With Coldwater's days numbered, Stubblefield said he hopes the Forest Service looks for alternatives besides simply demolishing the building. He suggested striking a partnership with a retailer such as REI, which might use the building as a base for outdoor excursions. The Mount Hood National Forest supports a hotel at Timberline Lodge — why not try a hotel at Coldwater?

"It's not like we'd have the Golden Arches out front," he said. "There are ways to do that with taste, without selling out."

Stubblefield is aware that Mount St. Helens remains a sacred place for many, and a burial ground for some. He said he isn't interested in over-commercializing the national volcanic monument, but he hates to see Coldwater shuttered a little more than a single decade after it opened — scarcely a blink in the scale of geological time in play at Mount St. Helens.

He's not willing to write it off.

"If it's not going to survive as a visitor center," he said, "then let's make it work for the public."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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