The U.S. Forest Service approved the plan to create the first overnight tourist facilities in Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument, complete with camping, cabins, and a lodge.
The Mount St. Helens Institute planned the lodge complex and outdoor school. Executive Director Ray Yurkewycz said the idea for overnight lodging and “the demand” had been around for a long time.
“If you look at any other similar public land site throughout the Pacific Northwest, there are opportunities to stay longer and engage. And that’s an important thing,” Yurkewycz said in an interview Thursday.
“You know, it’s one thing to come for a few hours and go to the visitor center, do a hike, and go home. It’s another thing to stay overnight — for kids especially, but all visitors,” he continued.
In late April, the Forest Service signed a phased 30-year permit for the institute to remodel the existing Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center and build three additional 10-room lodge buildings, cabins, and a 40-space campground.
It will be built on and around Coldwater’s vast and almost empty parking lot. The renovated visitor center would also have a new cafe and bookstore with meeting and classroom spaces.
“The infrastructure is already there,” Yurkewycz said. “This is not a new disturbance.”
When the design and engineering are finished, the service plans on making further environmental analysis. A Gifford Pinchot National Forest spokesperson said the public would have a chance to voice feedback and comments during the process.
The Coldwater Ridge center is in the blast zone about seven miles as the crow flies from the crater of Mount St. Helens.
Yurkewycz said the estimated $35 million construction fund will still need to be raised from the public and private sources, putting its grand opening about five years away.
“Partnerships such as this strengthen our conservation education programming while benefiting local communities,” Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Ranger Rebecca Hoffman said in a prepared statement. “The Forest’s decision to issue these 30-year operating permits to Mount St. Helens Institute is a result of our confidence in the Institute’s vision and due diligence.”
Other RV camping and lodging options are still available in gateway communities like Castle Rock, Kelso, the Cowlitz River Valley, and Cougar, Washington. However, volcano visitors need to drive at least an hour to the main viewpoints and trailheads inside the national monument. Backcountry camping is possible seasonally around the edges of the national monument.
In late March, the three-member Cowlitz County Commissioners signed a letter of support for the lodge complex.
“Since its 1980 eruption, public access to Mount St. Helens has been steadily decreasing; yet fewer than 40 miles away, visits to Mt. Rainier are increasing steadily,” the commissioners’ letter said. “We believe that MSHI’s Lodge & Education Center will provide expanded access to the Monument, thus tapping into a growing market for overnight accommodations and amenities in places of interest. We believe that outdoor recreation tourism is an important driver of economic diversification which will enable Cowlitz County to grow long-term as demand for outdoor recreation opportunities surges.
Yurkewycz said he anticipated shared, alternating occupancy of the future lodge complex by school groups and the general public during the spring and fall field trip seasons.
“We envision the facility being dedicated just to (outdoor school) Monday nights through Thursday nights in those months, and then weekends could be available to other visitors,” Yurkewycz said.
He said summertime could have a mix of youth camps, schools, and general public reservations. Wintertime might be chiefly open to tourists and recreationists.
This article originally appeared on KUOW.