Panel gives green light to contested timber harvest near Index

OLYMPIA — A state panel on Tuesday approved the logging of 119 acres on a hill near Index after authorities insisted there is little risk it will trigger a deadly mudslide.

On a 5-0 vote, the Board of Natural Resources included the harvest on the list of timber sales to be auctioned off next month with proceeds going to public schools, local taxing districts and Washington State University.

The “Deer Wrap” timber sale as it is known was approved in 2014 then put on hold by the state when an environmental group raised concerns about the harvest area’s proximity to what it calls a potentially unstable slope.

On Tuesday, the Washington Forest Law Center of Seattle asked for another delay so further study can be done on whether removing trees through logging would lead to more saturated ground and cause the slope to slide.

Kara Whittaker, the center’s senior scientist and policy analyst, told the board not enough is known about the subsurface flow of water and permeability of soils in and around the harvest area. Finding it out would require drilling in several locations to gauge the levels of water and saturation, she said.

Though not cheap, it would provide greater certainty about the likelihood of logging destabilizing the slope, she said.

“After the tragedy of Oso it is clear all forest land managers must be extremely cautious when approving forest practices above or adjacent to glacial deep-seated landslides,” she said.

Two Department of Natural Resources officials rebutted Whittaker’s concerns about the planned cutting of western hemlocks and Douglas firs on a mountainside above U.S. 2 northwest of Index. It overlooks railroad tracks, a few homes, Forks of the Sky State Park, the North Fork Skykomish River and popular rock climbing walls.

Tom Shay, assistant division manager of product sales, said the harvest area is a good distance from the slope that the Forest Law Center is concerned about.

There have been at least eight field visits to the site by five different licensed engineering geologists in the past three years, he said. Visits have occurred since DNR put the sale on hold because of the center’s concerns.

“The slope below the Deer Wrap sale has been extensively reviewed and DNR has a high confidence level that this is a low-risk proposal,” he said.

Some believe a decade-old clearcut on the bluff above Steelhead Haven was a contributing cause of the deadly March 22, 2014, Oso mudslide that killed 43 people.

Scientists who have studied the disaster focused on near-record rainfall in the weeks before the slide as the likeliest explanation for the torrent of mud.

A report published last year by an academic consortium called Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance speculated that logging might have changed how water moved through the hillside above Steelhead Haven. But that was just one of 10 factors that might have contributed, and evaluating the effect of logging on the slope was outside the scope of that report.

Casey Hanell, a geologist in the forest resources division, said the geologic setting at Deer Wrap is not the same as the hillside that gave way in Oso.

“I will say again there is a high level of confidence, and a lot of field evidence, that this may not, is probably not, a landslide,” Hanell said of the area where the timber is to be cut. “Again taking a conservative approach, if it was a landslide, from everything we can see here it is thousands of years old.”

That prompted a direct question from board member Ron Mittlehammer, who is dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, &Natural Resource Sciences at WSU in Pullman.

“Would you build a house at the bottom of that (slope) and live in it?” he asked.

“Yes,” Hanell replied.

The six-member board is led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. Other members are state schools chief Randy Dorn, a member of Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration, representatives from the University of Washington and Washington State and a Clallam County commissioner. Dorn did not attend Tuesday.

The state plans to auction the Deer Wrap timber June 17 with a minimum bid price of $812,000. About half would go to Washington State University and the remainder to a state account for elementary and secondary schools as well as Snohomish County and other taxing districts.

Following the vote, Peter Goldman, managing attorney of the nonprofit Forest Law Center, said he was disappointed the board didn’t pursue additional science in the interest of assuring the safety of the public living nearby.

While Goldman doesn’t think the conditions are identical as in Oso, in the “interests of caution” it should have been pulled back a little longer.

“Now we’re just going to have to keep our fingers crossed and hope that everything will be okay,” he said.

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

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