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Up Close and Personal with Mt. St. Helens

* The blast zone of Mt. St. Helens in southwest Washington State is now a national monument. This vast area is a panoramic window on the world of a volcano. It attracts one million tourists yearly.

A series of visitor centers have been built along State Route 504. The last one, the Johnston Ridge Observatory, is five miles from the crater created by the May 1980 eruption. Assistant director Debi Church answers many visitor questions. And some of ours:

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Why build a visitor center right next to a volcano?

According to historical records, the mountain generally erupts every 100 to 150 years, but no one knows for sure when it will happen again. This building is not volcano-proof, yet as long as it's here, we'll be able to educate people about volcanoes.

How close can you get to the crater?

With a hiking permit, which costs $15, anybody can climb the south side of Mt. St. Helens all the way to the rim of the crater. The north side, where the blast occurred, is off-limits.

How long before the area returns to what it was like before the blast?

Originally, people said it would be 70 years before anything would come back. They've long since figured that was not true. You may never again have those old-growth forests [they take 500 years to mature], but I see changes every day. One day it may be a baby fawn with its mother taking its first steps, or a seedling growing out of an elk's footprint.

* There are many volcano sites on the World Wide Web. These sites are among those recommended by Robert and Barbara Decker, authors of "Volcanoes" (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997):

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The University of North Dakota site has fine visuals, great links, and is frequently updated.

Boris Behncke's Volcano Home Page has a tremendous amount of information; emphasis on Italy.

The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program is user-friendly and has lots of annotated links.

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