A fishing mess at St. Helen's Spirit Lake

Looks like those lunker rainbow trout at Spirit Lake will be swimming a while longer.

Sport-fishing groups in the state have been angling for years to get at the trophy fish, which are protected within the boundaries of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The idea of letting fishermen into the restricted area, set aside by Congress for scientific research after the volcano's 1980 eruption, horrifies scientists working in the area.

Still, the fishing groups almost got their way this year.

A bill backed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife would open Spirit Lake to winners of a state lottery, letting in a limited number of anglers on guided trips, provided they agreed to sterilize their equipment so they didn't bring any pathogens or invasive species into the reserve.

Proponents of the bill envision national or even international demand for the opportunity to catch whopper trout next to an active volcano.

"It's a world-class fishery," said Denny Way, president of Clark-Skamania Flyfishers, one of the groups supporting the bill.

"We had a couple members of our organization go in there on kind of a survey thing, and they caught hundreds of fish in a couple of hours. They said there were probably thousands of them ranging from around 20 to 28 inches."

The prospect of proceeds from lottery ticket sales gave the plan great appeal in the state House, which passed the bill on a 95-to-1 vote March 6.

But in an interview Wednesday, Sen. Ken Jacobsen, chairman of the Senate's Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation Committee, said he doesn't intend to let the bill out of his committee by Monday's deadline for new legislation.

If Jacobsen, D-Seattle, follows through with that intention, the idea of a sport fishery at Spirit Lake would be dead -- at least for this year.

Jacobsen said he weighed science and recreation in his decision, and science came out ahead.

"I looked at this as an area where for going on 30 years there's been not a lot of human interaction," Jacobsen said. "It's one place in the world where we got this experiment going on, and it doesn't make sense to waste it."

Scientists regard St. Helens' volcanic recovery zone as an unequaled natural laboratory.

Researchers flew into the blast zone 2 1/2 weeks after the eruption, giving them a continuous data record that is unique in many research areas.

Discoveries at St. Helens have led to advances in fields ranging from timber harvesting and mining reclamation to the beginnings of life on earth.

"There's nothing like this in the world," said Roger del Moral, a University of Washington biology professor who has spent most of his professional career studying the re-emergence of life in the volcanic blast zone.

Research almost surely would be affected by fishermen trampling along the margins of the lake, del Moral said, no matter how careful they tried to be.

"Allowing fishing would amount to introducing a lot of unneeded interference for a short-term, narrow gain," he said. "For them, the beauty of it is big, fat fish."

Tom Mulder, the manager of Mount St. Helens National Monument, was unable to testify against the bill because of his position as a federal employee.

But he expressed disbelief Wednesday that what he regards as such a wrong-headed idea could have the support of the state Fish and Wildlife Department and passed by such a wide margin in the House.

Existing laws give the federal government management responsibility for the monument, but the state manages the fish and wildlife within it.

The thrill of catching big fish in such protected surroundings also escapes him, Mulder said.

"It would be a lot like going down to a fish hatchery and saying, 'Gee, I'd really like to get my hook in the water,' " Mulder said.

Meanwhile, Way, the Flyfishers president, said he has his doubts about the scientific value of the research.

"We've been at this for seven years," he said, "and with monument people, the long and short of it is, they maintain there's research being done in this supposedly pristine area.

"What we try to get an answer to is what research is going that would be so impacted by limited access that we couldn't coexist."

Susan Saul, a conservationist and environmental activist, blamed the fishing controversy on trips sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Department, in which volunteers are invited to spend a day catching fish at Spirit Lake for "survey" purposes.

"Once they came home and told their stories to all their buddies in their club, they all wanted their turn," she said.