State must ensure future logging doesn’t trigger landslides

As Oso families struggle to rebuild their lives and Washington state rebuilds Highway 530 with federal disaster funds, it is time to ask why the state has done so little to ensure that logging does not exacerbate risks to citizens who live and travel near dangerous landslides.

In a July 22 report, a distinguished panel of independent scientists called Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER), funded in part by the National Science Foundation, concluded that the Oso landslide was caused by enormous amounts of groundwater that infiltrated the landslide from forestlands above and to the side of it in addition to direct rainfall. GEER had neither the resources nor the mandate to determine the degree to which past or recent logging caused or contributed to the Oso landslide. But the GEER scientists did conclude that additional groundwater generated by past and recent logging on the Whitman Bench and the Headache Creek drainage above the slide “possibly” contributed to the groundwater that triggered the slide.

One key lesson from the Oso disaster, which resulted in the loss of 43 lives, is that the state should not be permitting logging that increases the potential for dangerous landslides. Public safety demands a moratorium on forest practices on or near such landslides until the Legislature or governor convenes an independent commission that is charged with understanding how we can safely conduct such logging and this commission reports its findings to the state agencies, the general public, and the Forest Practices Board. Unfortunately, the Governor’s Highway 530 Commission will not be looking at the forestry issue and the Department of Natural Resources and the practices board’s rulemaking process are too susceptible to timber industry stalling to make the changes necessary to prevent dangerous landslides before the next storm season.

Why is the status quo dangerous? Although the technology and geologic maps exists, the state does not know the locations where landslide dangers are greatest; we need to immediately make interim precautionary maps where most are likely to exist. And even if the state does know where a landslide is most likely, state regulations do not prohibit logging on or near it but only call for unspecified further environmental review. And it is still possible and legal for forest landowners to log dangerously close to such landslide-prone areas because the state has only cursory guidelines in place governing how a deep-seated landslide’s crucial groundwater “recharge area” must be identified on the ground and protected from logging.

In the five months since the devastating Oso landslide, neither the Forest Practices Board, led by the commissioner of Public Lands, nor the Forest Practices Board’s consensus-based “Timber Fish and Wildlife Policy Committee” has produced any evaluation of the existing regulations or Department of Natural Resources screening and enforcement procedures; instead, both rulemaking entities have been slowed by timber industry stalling, which unfortunately permeates the forest practice rulemaking process. DNR has commendably taken some recent steps to screen more logging applications near known “unstable landforms.” But too many dangerous landslide-prone ares have not been identified, DNR’s screening procedures are vague, and there are no enforceable guidelines governing how DNR will identify and protect the crucial groundwater “recharge areas” adjacent to these areas.

Public safety cannot and must not be compromised by stalling, politics and agency bureaucracy. A precautionary temporary moratorium and an independent commission identifying the needed forestry changes are they only ways to protect the public from landslides that could be made more dangerous by logging this winter.

Peter Goldman is the director of the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle. WFLC’s mission is to enforce and work to improve the laws and regulations governing logging on state and private forest land in the Pacific Northwest.

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