INDEX — The state Department of Natural Resources is moving forward with a $1.2 million timber sale after taking a second look at landslide risk.
The 119-acre harvest on state land near Index known as the “Deer Wrap” timber sale was approved in 2014. But the state halted the process earlier this year after an environmental group in Seattle raised concerns about what it calls potentially unstable slopes below the harvest area.
The Washington Forest Law Center says logging the site might compromise the safety of people nearby because fewer trees would likely mean more saturated ground, which could cause a slope to slide.
“This isn’t about aesthetics,” said Peter Goldman, managing attorney of the nonprofit Forest Law Center. “This is about public safety.”
Proceeds of the timber sale benefits public education, including Washington State University, and local taxing districts. Statewide, the Department of Natural Resources manages 2.1 million acres of trust lands to generate income as well as provide for recreation.
The western hemlocks and Douglas firs to be cut are on a mountainside above U.S. 2, a railroad, Forks of the Sky State Park, the North Fork Skykomish River and popular rock climbing walls just northwest of Index. The town of Index also raised concerns about the timber sale.
State forestry officials said the harvest was put on hold because it became apparent that DNR’s application to log the property did not provide enough detail about the evaluation of a licensed geologist.
“You need to be willing to call a time out and go back and take a closer look,” said Aaron Everett, the state forester. “The review we’d like to have seen done is now done.”
Kara Whittaker, a Forest Law Center scientist, raised the concerns that led the state to do more research. She worries that logging the site will leave fewer trees to soak up water in the ground. Wetter earth could cause an ancient “deep-seated” landslide area to be reactivated, Whittaker said.
But after visiting the site recently with geologist Dan McShane of Bellingham, the Forest Law Center decided not to appeal the sale. Although it still has concerns, the group determined that it did not have the resources to study the effects of logging on groundwater and to quantify potential hazards to successfully appeal the sale, Goldman said.
The sale “poses risk to the public below and is an irresponsible timber sale given the magnitude of the potential harm if a landslide occurred,” he wrote in an email to the Herald. “Once again, DNR has put cranking out board feet of logs ahead of the public interest.”
The state plans to auction the Deer Wrap timber on June 17. Last year, had the timber been sold at even the minimum bid price of $1.2 million, $523,600 would have gone to Washington State University; $212,621 to the state’s K-12 school trust; $102,219 to Snohomish County and other taxing districts; and $4,102 to the state Capitol Building trust. DNR would use the remainder for land management.
After the Oso mudslide killed 43 people in March 2014, state forestry rules were changed to allow for more careful examination of timber harvests. The state Forest Practices Board in February made clear that those who want to log landslide-prone areas might be required to provide more scientific data to show public safety is not an issue.
The logging application for the Deer Wrap timber sale was put together by DNR staffers based in Sedro-Woolley. Colleagues in the same office reviewed and approved the application.
The Forest Law Center is now calling on the state to conduct a groundwater study for the Deer Wrap harvest to evaluate potential hazards before cutting. But Bob Redling, a spokesman for DNR, said there are no plans for further research.
“We feel the technical reports we have reveal what we need to know,” he said.
After the Forest Law Center raised questions, the state had licensed geologist John McKenzie take another look. He concluded that while an ancient deep-seated landslide zone might be under the sale area, the slopes in question are relatively stable and are not likely to be affected by the harvest.
McKenzie also pointed out that a larger portion of the Deer Wrap harvest area was logged in the 1940s. After that cut, there were several seasons of higher-than-average rainfall, but his research found no subsequent adverse effects.
A team that included officials from DNR, the Tulalip Tribes and the state Department of Ecology also took a second look at the implications of a timber harvest.
Everett, the state forester, said his staff budget has been cut by 30 percent since the recession. At the same time, he said, the number of applications to harvest timber has increased by 40 percent statewide.
He now has 45 people to review 6,000 new logging applications and to check on another 10,000 approved applications each year. His department has asked the Legislature to provide more money for staff to review proposed logging.
“It makes it extremely challenging with fewer boots on the ground,” Everett said.