Forest board to pursue survey of slide-prone areas

OLYMPIA – Washington won’t impose a moratorium on logging in some landslide-prone areas as a Snohomish County leader wanted.

At least not yet.

On Tuesday, the state Forest Practices Board did not act on the temporary ban sought by one of its members, Snohomish County Council Chairman Dave Somers, because it isn’t clear if the board has the power to do so.

The panel will look to Attorney General Bob Ferguson for an answer. State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, whose designee is the board chairman, will formally request an opinion on behalf of the panel in the next few days.

While a temporary ban is off the table for now, the board agreed Tuesday to review rules for harvesting timber to ensure that public safety considered before logging tracts with geology similar to the Oso area, where a massive mudslide on March 22 killed 41 people. Two people are still missing.

The Forest Practices Board also agreed to find ways to better identify deposits of glacial sediment where deep-seated landslides could occur, have occurred or are at risk of recurring.

The board wants to better map where landslide-prone areas overlap with or are near areas where water soaks into the ground and recharges the aquifer. Some believe logging in such groundwater-recharge zones leads to greater water absorption, which destabilizes the soil, increasing the chance of a landslide.

Somers had wanted to cease issuing permits for logging in areas of glacial sediment in or near water-recharge zones. But he wasn’t disappointed the panel shelved the idea, nor did he worry that a catastrophic landslide might occur as a result of the panel’s inaction.

“I’m not too worried. I don’t think there is anything imminent that we’ve missed,” he said.

He said it would be “crazy” for someone to seek a logging permit in such high risk areas.

Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, said a moratorium prompted a lot of questions and concern from landowners.

It wasn’t needed, he said, because private forest owners are “avoiding any harvest in areas identified with steep and unstable slopes in recharge zones.”

Now the board will work to gather data on the location of deep-seated landslides and groundwater-recharge zones.

Members want to use a remote sensing technology known as LIDAR — Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging — which creates a precise rendering of topography. It would cost about $20 million to map potential landslide hazards.

Private landowners also gather LIDAR data. The board will reach out to them in hopes they’ll share some of their maps.

Those decisions by the Forest Practices Board come four days after Goldmark ordered more scrutiny for logging proposals in areas near unstable slopes that could pose a hazard.

Under the new rule, those applying for timber harvest permits must provide the Department of Natural Resources with a detailed review of the area by a qualified geologist. The requirement is not retroactive and does not apply to pending harvests that have not required state approval.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the woman nominated to head the U.S. Geological Survey committed to studying landslide risks and gathering LIDAR data nationwide during her confirmation hearing.

Under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Suzette Kimball told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that it will be a priority on her watch. The USGS had penciled in development of a national plan for dealing with landslide hazards but never had the money to do it.

“I know our USGS employees feel very strongly about landslide work,” she said. “We have additional funds that we are planning to use for a national assessment of landslide-prone areas, and ultimately, to look at the kinds of precipitation events that would trigger landslides and debris flow.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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