Article: Coalition strives to reopen High Lakes area to public
People who miss fishing and hiking around four pretty lakes in the Mount St. Helens blast zone haven't given up in their quest to re-establish public access.
The Forest Service and several groups which have banded together as the Mount St. Helens High Lakes Coalition are working on funding to purchase at least some of the lakes in the high country north of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.
"It's such a beautiful area," said Lisa Romano, community engagement specialist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
"This a recreation jewel," gushed Jessica Schafer, conservation director for the Gifford Pinchot Task Force.
For decades, Elk, Hanaford, Forest and Fawn lakes were popular places to camp and fish. At one time, Weyerhaeuser allowed people to drive its rough roads into the area and the Department of Fish and Wildlife stocked the lakes with trout.
That changed in 2007, when Weyerhaeuser sold 4,100 acres of forest land around the lakes to two men from the Tacoma area, Kurt Erickson and Fred Wagner.
The partners have been operating most of the area as a tree farm producing noble fir boughs for the holiday season, Wagner said.
They've sold about 600 acres to individual owners, but don't intend to sell more, Wagner said. "We just wanted to generate some cash to pay back our original investment" of $6.5 million, he said.
"We've never represented the parcels as being building property," Wagner said. "Some of that got misconstrued. It was not our intention to create a residential development."
Indeed, "none of the parcels have been built on," according to Shafer.
When Romano recently drove through most of the area, "there was a canoe on one of the lakes and a few gates. Lots of the roads are in good condition," she said.
Wagner and Erickson have met with High Lakes Coalition members and are open to discussing a sale of either land or access rights, Wagner said. One possibility is selling an easement for public access. "We haven't nailed down anything," Wagner said.
Schafer said Wagner and Erickson "have been really great partners on this. They are willing to work with us."
However, raising funds could take years.
The National Volcanic Monument has applied for money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which can be used for the acquisition of land and water, and easements on it, to provide recreation and protect of natural resources.
"I think we've got a really strong proposal," Romano said, because of the area's recreational opportunities and the fact that it's a wildlife corridor.
The application, which doesn't cite a specific dollar figure, would have to make it up through layers of the Forest Service before it's submitted to Congress.
Schafer said funding is more likely with wide community support, and she's been lobbying county officials.
Most of the High Lakes area is in Skamania County, where the commission has supported returning the lakes to recreational use, according to Commissioner Paul Pearce.
"We're trying to get her back where it belongs," Pearce said. "It's recreation that you don't find everywhere on the forest."
Because of that, the Skamania County Commission for several years has had a building moratorium on its segment of the High Lakes, which includes Elk and Hanaford lakes and most of Forest Lake.
The current Forest Service funding application is for the approximately 2,500 acres of the High Lakes in Skamania County.
"One of the main focuses of this is you would acquire the historic route back to the Mount Margaret country," said coalition member Darcy Mitchem of Toutle. "That Mount Margaret area is so spectacular," she said. Since the High Lakes area closed to the public, it has required miles more hiking to reach Mount Margaret, the highest peak on the ridge north of Spirit Lake.
Because the Forest Service once owned the High Lakes in Skamania County, it would be easier to buy the land back, Romano said.
The western part of the region, including Fawn Lake, lies in Cowlitz County, which doesn't have a building moratorium. Cowlitz County Commissioner Jim Misner said he supports re-establishing recreational use for the High Lakes — but not a building moratorium. "Putting a moratorium anywhere is like sounding off with a bullhorn that we're anti-growth," Misner said. "We try to promote rural development. We want people to be able to move here."
Romano said the High Lakes Coalition might try to get public access to the Cowlitz County portion in a future phase, possibly through an easement.
If the Forest Service is able to purchase some of the High Lakes area, the land wouldn't be added to the National Volcanic Monument, Mitchem said. Monument lands have more restrictions than other parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, such as a prohibition against hiking off trails.
The Forest Service would have to go through a planning process to decide just how to manage the lakes, Romano said.
Would people ever be able to drive back in for a day of fishing?
"We haven't touched that yet," she said.