OLYMPIA — A block away from the state Capitol, in a fourth floor office partially framed with picture windows, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark is seated at his desk, looking nervous.
He is the man entrusted by voters to make sure harvesting of timber doesn’t trigger destructive landslides. Now they want to know if a 7.5-acre clearcut atop Hazel Hill nearly a decade ago contributed to the deadly mudslide in Oso last month.
He is getting asked the question a lot these days.
“It is too early to know what were the major causes of that terrible landslide,” he said Tuesday. “We want to rely on science and scientific studies to ascertain what the causes of the landslide were.”
At least one renowned geologists who has studied landslides for 30 years says that logging isn’t to blame.
Goldmark’s position is different than he expressed in an April 3 television interview.
At the time, he sounded pretty convinced of no connection between the felling of trees and the catastrophic March 22 geologic event. He suggested that speculation about a link was the propaganda of anti-logging interests.
Some of those interests — who helped elect Goldmark, a Democrat, in 2008 and re-elect him in 2012 — criticized the commissioner’s stance.
Goldmark reacted by retreating to a less judgmental message and launching a probe into the clearcut on the hill above Steelhead Haven.
“We are carrying out an investigation into what happened in 2004,” he said. “I want to emphasize this was under a previous administration. It wasn’t under this administration when that logging occurred. There have been questions about that earlier harvest and we are looking into the matter.”
He did not say when the investigation would be completed or what its scope is.
While Goldmark assumes a wait-and-see attitude on the impact of that timber harvest in 2005, federal geologist Randall Jibson is confident the outcome will reveal no link.
“Clear-cutting and timber harvesting had nothing to do with that landslide,” said Jibson, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “I don’t think there is a credible scientist working up there that thinks it had anything to do with the landslide.”
Jibson and several of his USGS colleagues reached that assessment soon after the mudslide and have not been swayed from it. The slide appears to have begun 200 feet below the surface, he said, and that is far too deep to have been influenced by logging.
They contend there are three ingredients — weak glacial soil, heavier than normal rainfall and steep topography. The mystery is how those elements blended together to liquefy such a large mass of earth so rapidly and propel it more than 5,800 feet from northernmost point at the top of the scarp to the farthest southern point. The debris reached 60 mph. In all, the slide displaced 10 million cubic yards of earth.
“We’re not surprised by where it happened. We’re not surprised by the conditions that caused it to happen,” Jibson said Monday. “What surprised us was the size, the speed and the distance. For a landslide of this volume starting at the height that it did it went farther than any other we’ve measured.”
In size alone it is 50 times bigger than a 2005 landslide that killed 10 people in the California seaside town of La Conchita, Jibson said.
Jibson’s perspective provides Goldmark and Aaron Everett, the state’s chief forester, one scientist’s analysis as they prepare to review agency policies and practices governing timber harvests, particularly on steep slopes.
“There will be many, besides DNR, who will be involved in formulating a plan of lessons learned here and what further scientific information could be useful in helping to identify and provide public safety from this point going forward,” Goldmark said.
Everett said in the end it is “important that we have the right answer.”
When asked what that is, he said: “Speculation is not the right answer.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.