Interior secretary at Oso: Funding needed for scientific research

OSO — Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell came to Oso on Thursday to see the aftermath of the mudslide that killed 43 people a year and a half ago.

Jewell grew up in Washington and knows Highway 530 well from many trips to the back country. This was her first visit since the slide.

“What’s so striking to me, and I’ve driven this road hundreds of times, is how unremarkable and normal was the hillside that gave out,” she said.

On a hill overlooking the slide zone on a crisp fall morning, Jewell, flanked by Rep. Suzan DelBene, Stillaguamish Tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity and other leaders and scientists, said that events like Oso must be studied to determine their cause so the public can be prepared for future disasters.

That requires an investment of money into scientific research to get at those answers, which hasn’t been forthcoming from Congress, Jewell said.

The government is operating under a continuing resolution that expires in December.

“The budget situation is a mess. This is definitely the most expensive way of going about it,” DelBene, D-Wash., said.

Budgeting for programs at all the agencies within Interior — the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service among many others — is essentially flatlined at last year’s levels until Congress passes a budget, Jewell said.

Even then, a one-year budget, at best, is a far cry from the long-term investment needed to truly get in front of natural disasters like slides.

“I’m in the forever business,” Jewell said. “We have to get together to run this country in a responsible way.”

While money from Washington, D.C., has slowed to a trickle, plenty was being spent on attorneys in Washington state fighting over what caused the mudslide, even as scientists were researching the site.

On Friday, a King County judge is scheduled to take up a request by the timber company Grandy Lake Forest Associates to be dropped from the case. The company contends that emerging scientific evidence doesn’t support the families’ claim that logging was a proximate cause of the mudslide.

While the role that logging might have played in the disaster remains in dispute, the scientific community is trying to expand its knowledge of this and other geological hazards.

One key to that is expanding the use of high-resolution lidar imaging, which has allowed the state to locate fault lines and other landslides in the Stillaguamish Valley going back thousands of years. Those images will become key to planning efforts and to reducing risks to lives and property.

“You have to have high-res lidar to not make bad decisions,” state geologist Dave Norman said Thursday during a panel discussion at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle.

Norman said that while the state increased its funding for lidar mapping, it will still take 20 years to complete a survey of the 80 percent of the state left to map.

Thursday’s discussion was focused on natural disaster preparedness, especially in the face of climate change, which is expected to make droughts worse, wildfires larger and pose even more risks to the population.

Yanity said that scientific research has figured into how the Stillaguamish Tribe manages its environmental programs, but also into traditional knowledge.

There is a flower that tribal weavers watch for that blooms when cedar bark is ready for harvesting. Usually it blooms in March, Yanity said, but this year it bloomed in January.

Likewise, frogs, whose spring croaking signals the end of duck season, started months early.

“We’re seeing it, we’re actually living it, because it’s so deep-rooted in our culture,” Yanity said.

Jewell said that her department’s budget request includes funding to hire indigenous people with traditional knowledge in six of the department’s climate science centers, to get a broader view of the risks changing climate will pose to people.

It is precisely that sort of reaching out to other agencies, nongovernmental organizations, businesses and the public to truly prepare for disasters, she said.

“Landslides will happen, natural events will happen, but they don’t have to turn into disasters,” Jewell said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_at_Herald.

Wind storm federal aid

President Barack Obama has ordered federal aid to help areas of Washington state recover from a severe August wind storm.

Obama on Thursday signed a disaster declaration because of the Aug. 29 storm that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people in Western Washington.

The president’s action will allow federal funding to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts in Snohomish, Island and Jefferson counties.

Associated Press

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