State’s top attorney to weigh in on halt to logging in slide-prone areas

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson is looking into whether the state panel that regulates logging can legally halt timber harvests in landslide-prone areas.

Ferguson is preparing a formal opinion on the extent of the Forest Practices Board’s authority to impose a moratorium on accepting and issuing permits for logging where unstable slopes create a potential for devastating landslides, such as the one that occurred in in Oso.

He also will examine if state law empowers the panel to adopt emergency rules to achieve such a ban.

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark requested Ferguson’s advice on behalf of the board, an independent entity with representatives from state agencies, forest landowners, environmentalists and local government. State forester Aaron Everett is the chairman and designee of Goldmark.

Board members discussed a moratorium at a May 13 meeting but took no action mostly because of the legal uncertainty.

Nine days later, Goldmark made his request to Ferguson and asked for swift action because a moratorium “is among the actions that board has been urged to consider” following the deadly mudslide.

“Given the public safety nature of this important topic, I am requesting that you assign this matter a high priority so that the board has clear knowledge of its authority and can chart a course forward at the earliest possible time,” Goldmark wrote.

A formal opinion usually takes at least three months to complete, said .Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Ferguson.

Part of the reason is the public is given time to weigh in on the subject. Anyone interested in commenting must contact the Office of the Attorney General by June 25.

“It is an open process,” Guthrie said. “It is an opportunity for us to hear from others.”

Dave Somers, a Snohomish County council member and Forest Practices Board member, proposed the logging ban in areas that have geology similar to the hillside in Oso, which gave way March 22, killing 43 people. The body of one victim has not been recovered.

At that May meeting, Somers said he felt the board had the power to stop issuing permits for logging in areas of glacial sediment that is in or near groundwater-recharge zones and on or near unstable slopes.

Instead, the board agreed to contact the attorney general. And it then agreed to find ways to better identify deposits of glacial sediment where deep-seated landslides have occurred in the past and are at risk of recurring.

And the board agreed to develop better maps of where glacial sediment overlaps or is in close proximity to zones where water soaks into the ground and recharges the aquifer below. Some believe logging in groundwater recharge areas leads to a greater absorption of water and destabilizing of soil, boosting the chance of a landslide.

A coalition of environmental groups that backed Somers’ proposal continues to press for a moratorium. On Thursday, it made a pitch to a committee that advises the Forest Practices Board on logging-related policies.

Mary Scurlock of the Conservation Caucus asked the Timber, Fish and Wildlife Policy Committee to recommend that the Forest Practices Board not issue permits for logging in areas of deep-seated landslides until their locations are clearly identified and the potential risks better known. Scurlock represents the caucus on the committee.

The policy committee did not discuss Scurlock’s request but is crafting suggestions to give the Forest Practices Board for an Aug. 12 meeting on dealing with areas at risk of landslides.

“We’re going to bring something to the board. We think something like (a moratorium) is warranted,” Scurlock said.

Karen Terwilliger, senior director of forest and environmental policy for the Washington Forest Protection Association, said the board has a good strategy in place and just needs the panel’s input for tweaking it.

“I think we should stay the course that the Forest Practices Board put together,” she said.

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

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