Special Reports

2005: Scientist arrived in 1980, still hasn't left

Nobody has spent more time studying nature's response to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens than Charlie Crisafulli.

Crisafulli was 22 when he arrived in July 1980. Initially, he examined the behavior of northern pocket gophers. Now, his primary focus is amphibians.

Along the way, Crisafulli has picked up an encyclopedic knowledge of St. Helens' flora and fauna, and a reputation as a dedicated naturalist.

Crisafulli is a research ecologist for the Pacific Northwest Research Station, a U.S. Forest Service scientific laboratory. In addition to doing his own research, he coordinates the work of other scientists around St. Helens.

"He's like a kid playing in the mud with his amphibians and mammals," said Virginia Dale, a plant ecologist. Dale, who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, also conducts research near St. Helens.

Crisafulli's supervisor, Forest Service fish biologist Peter Bisson, calls him a "free spirit."

Though 47 now, Crisafulli still looks like a student. He usually wears his shoulder-length hair in a single braid, but has to fashion it into pony tail before he can wriggle into his dry suit. He wears the suit to count the frogs and salamanders in the many small ponds near St. Helens.

Salamanders, frogs and toads intrigue him, Crisafulli says, because they "straddle both land and water."

Since 1996, Crisafulli and his research colleagues have received more than $100,000 annually in grants for amphibian research. Concern about a global decline in amphibian populations has made the money available, he said.

As it turns out, ice-covered lakes protected many amphibians near St. Helens in 1980. Since then, "some have absolutely flourished," Crisafulli said.

Traces of the East Coast accent Crisafulli's speech. He grew up in the Hudson River Valley south of Albany, N.Y., earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the State University of New York, then let wanderlust take him west. He was a Utah State University research associate when he started working at St. Helens.

In winter, when his field work was done, he took graduate classes, but never earned a higher degree. In 1989, he joined the Forest Service. He's now a single father and lives in Yacolt, Clark County, with his 10-year-old daughter, Teal. At home, he tends organic plants in a 1,800-square-foot greenhouse and an even larger garden.

Crisafulli has documented some of his St. Helens findings in scientific papers. He, Dale and geomorphologist Fred Swanson jointly edited a book, "Ecological Responses to the 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens," which comes out this month. Crisafulli wrote or co-wrote 11 of its 20 articles.

What happened at St. Helens after 1980 altered some scientific notions about the effects of disturbance. As it turned out, chance - the season and time of day - greatly influenced survival, Crisafulli said.

Northern pocket gophers and other small rodents endured because they were underground during the 1980 eruption. Since then, gophers have built miles of tunnels, which initially helped plants and other animals colonize the area.

To monitor the changes, Crisafulli and other researchers have set up plots around the mountain.

Most are used to study amphibians, which have been more extensively surveyed than other forms of life near Mount St. Helens.

Originally published on May 15, 2005.