After Pandemic Closures, Our Newly Renovated Mount St. Helens Visitor Center Reopens With Updated Exhibits

The view from our Forest Learning Center.

When you arrive at our Forest Learning Center just outside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in southwest Washington, you’re likely to hear “Oh wow!” more than a few times from visitors.

You’ll hear it at the viewpoint on the edge of the parking lot, where the impressive vista spills out from the Toutle River valley below all the way up to the cratered mountain above.

And you’ll hear it as visitors enter the newly renovated FLC by stepping inside a replica forest, where the ground underfoot is spongy, like a real forest floor. An animatronic woodpecker pecks at a tree over the sound of birdsong. A chipmunk pops up, delighting the youngest guests. A stuffed elk, standing proud on a fern-covered rock, noses visitors in the direction of the Eruption Chamber theatre.

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The Forest Learning Center hosted about 200,000 visitors a year before the pandemic. Visitors, including many Weyerhaeuser teams, have enthusiastically returned to the center since it reopened with refreshed exhibits in May.

Inside the Eruption Chamber, the dioramas are starkly different. Everything is ash gray. There’s an overturned vehicle along the wall and snapped trees. Lights strobe to create the effect of lightning as historical newsreel footage of Sunday, May 18, 1980, rolls on the large screen. On that fateful morning, the mountain blew its top with the force of several atomic bombs and flattened nearly 100 square miles of mature timber on our St. Helens tree farm. The show plays on a loop, with a countdown clock in the lobby and a waiting period between each viewing to allow small children and visitors with sensory sensitivities time to walk through the chamber while the lights are up.​​​​​​​

“The Eruption Chamber is most visitors’ favorite part of the center,” says Stuart Stein, data and process lead for Western Timberlands’ Inventory and Planning team, who also manages the FLC. “But it’s really just the beginning of the overall experience.”

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Inside the FLC are exhibits for all ages. Forest animals are hidden throughout the center in displays like this one.

A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY TO SHARE OUR SUSTAINABILITY STORY

Beyond the Eruption Chamber lies the rest of the FLC: exhibits that explain the immediate aftermath of the eruption — including a rotating kiosk of newspaper coverage from around the country and a life-size diorama of loggers salvaging ash-encrusted logs — an updated kids’ room and completely redesigned displays about Weyerhaeuser.

“The exhibits about Weyerhaeuser were out of date — most hadn’t been touched in decades — so we kicked off the refresh project in 2018,” says Patti Atherly, who retired as a senior communications manager last summer and led the FLC refresh project along with Xan McCallum (vice president of Talent, Inclusion, Communications & Culture), Stuart and other members of the Timberlands team. “With the 40th anniversary of the eruption in May 2020, we anticipated an increase in visitors to Mount St. Helens and realized it would be the perfect time to tell our story in a new way. Of course, COVID had different plans, but by that summer the FLC refresh was basically complete — even if visitors wouldn’t be able to see the updates for another two years!”

Some parts of the FLC — the lobby, the Eruption Chamber, and the ‘after the blast’ exhibits — just needed a touchup or slight reconfigurations. But Patti and the FLC update team redesigned the Weyerhaeuser section from the ground up. Previously sparse walls were covered in floor-to-ceiling photos of our nurseries, tree farms and operating areas. Narrative captions were added to the photos so even visitors passing through quickly could still glean important facts about the company — such as the carbon cycle of our working forests, as well as more background on our approach to sustainable forestry. A product wall showcasing each of our wood products was added.

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Travis Keatley, senior vice present of Timberlands, plays the Forest Management Game during a visit to the FLC with his family. Travis worked as an interpretive intern at the FLC in 1997 $mdash; his first paid job at Weyerhaeuser!

Technologically outdated exhibits were replaced with new interactive elements, including a Forest Management Game designed by Stephanie Tanuwijaya, IT app services specialist, and another former IT intern in 2019. This kid-friendly touch-screen game challenges visitors to sustainably and profitably manage a forest products company — from planting to harvest to manufacturing — by making choices along the way that effectively balance safety, labor and environmental considerations. Players must also grapple with the “wheel of doom” that serves up random challenging events, like fire, disease or drought.

“My favorite part of the Forest Learning Center is the Discovery Room,” Stuart says. “It’s also geared toward kids, with touchable exhibits of rocks, pelts, tree cookies and even Weyerhaeuser safety gear to dress up in. I appreciate that there’s a place where budding naturalists can explore, touch and handle parts of the forest.”

Additional kid-focused features were also added: a tree sculpture with often-surprising products made from wood seeming to emerge from the trunk; a Critter Corner with brand-new murals of a forest and the many animals that call it home; videos of our Longview, Washington, lumber mill and different things a tree can be; and kid-height buttons to push to learn more about recycling, how wood products are made, what a forester does, and more.

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The new tree sculpture with products made from wood emerging out of the trunk. Kids and adults alike stop here to see how many things they can identify — including some surprises, such as toothpaste.

AN ENTHUSIASTIC RETURN

“We’re really excited about the updates, and we’re thrilled to show them off this year,” Stuart says. “It’s so important to inform the voting public about who we are and what we do, and the FLC is a great place to do so. We get visitors from Omaha and Boston who have no idea that every tree they see on the mountainside started life in a nursery and was planted by hand.”

Such visitors can learn not just from the exhibits, but also from the most essential part of the FLC: the volunteers who staff the center.

“We rely on about 30 volunteers to staff the center, and most of them are Weyerhaeuser retirees,” Stuart says. “They love what they do. They’re the real heroes of the place and the reason it’s still open and running. They’re a great bunch of people, and very dedicated to what they do and talking to visitors, ensuring they have a safe, educational visit.”

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The volcano slide is a popular attraction for visitors of all ages. Soon, a new playground will be added next to the slide.

In fact, Stuart says the volunteers were so enthusiastic about coming back that he and Stan Noteboom, Forest Learning Center director, were able to staff the FLC seven days a week this season.

The sunny weekends of July and August are especially popular days at the FLC. Many visitors are on their way to other parts of the National Volcanic Monument, and before the pandemic about 200,000 visitors a year stopped into the free FLC.

“So far the reception has been fantastic,” Stuart says. “The on-site gift shop is run independently, and they’ve told us they’ve had record sales so far this year. We’re just thrilled to be open and part of the community again.”

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The Forest Learning Center sign. Trees on our St. Helens tree farm grow on the hillsides around it, and placards along the highway share planned harvest dates for some stands and replanted dates for others (including a number of stands replanted in 2022!).

If you’d like to visit the FLC, it’s open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Oct. 3. Admission to the FLC and its grounds (which include volcano slides, an accessible elk viewing platform, picnic area and forest hiking trails) is free.

“The project team was able to visit last year, and we’re very happy with the way it turned out,” Patti says. “The new Weyerhaeuser section, ‘Our Story Starts in the Forest,’ really showcases our sustainability story and explains why we do what we do — and how we do it so well.”