Washington State's Slippery Rules on Logging

It Wasn't Unusual That the Department of Natural Resources Had Allowed Logging Around the Hazel Slope—Even Though It Was Known to Be Unstable

Washington State's Slippery Rules on Logging

Kelly O

A HILLSIDE NEARBY A lot of the hills along the Stillaguamish River look like this.

Two days after the Hazel slope in Oso turned into what one rescue worker described as "a blender" of mud and trees hurtling downhill, a Snohomish County official told a roomful of reporters: "This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere." He was wrong. The unstable composition of the slope—loose silt and sand, deposited by glaciers on top of a layer of clay—was so well-known that a 1967 article in the Seattle Times referred to it as "slide hill," and a 1999 geological report for the Army Corps of Engineers discussed its "potential for large-scale catastrophic failure."

In the following week, government spokespeople found things to blame for the catastrophe—record-breaking rainfall, the Stillaguamish River cutting into the base of the slope—but one factor they didn't discuss much was money. Reporters dug up a decades-old history of warnings from scientists, who said the slope had been logged for about a century and that continued logging would exacerbate its already-dangerous condition. Companies continued logging anyway, under a patchwork of shifting regulations from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Paul Kennard, a geologist who now works for the National Park Service at Mount Rainier, said he worked with the Tulalip tribe in the 1980s to restrict timber harvests near the Hazel slope because of fears that it would collapse, filling the Stillaguamish with silt and damaging the salmon and steelhead fisheries. They won a partial victory by getting some of the area just above the slope designated as a "groundwater recharge zone"—a place where rainfall soaks through the ground and "recharges" the water table, acting as a lubricant beneath the already unstable layers of earth, making them more likely to slide.

A watershed analysis report from the late 1990s gave the Hazel slope a hazard rating of "high," explaining that "Ground water supply to a particular landslide can be increased in the short term by clear-cutting or wildfire within its recharge area. Alternatively, recharge in the longer term can be reduced by reforestation." A 1998 paper by geologists Daniel Miller and Joan Sias pointed out that evapotranspiration—the amount of rainfall sucked up by trees and released into the air—was between 45 and 75 percent on the Hazel slope. The message was clear: Taking away more trees would drastically increase the amount of water soaking into the ground and lubricating the slide.

But in the pro-logging political climate at the time, said Kennard, the geologist, the Tulalip's ability to establish an off-limits groundwater recharge zone felt like "a true victory." But the lines, he explained, were drawn somewhat arbitrarily, without drilling to test where the water was and what it was doing. "There was tremendous pressure," he said, "from the timber industry and regulators—the DNR—to minimize it."

The Department of Natural Resources manages 3 million acres of state land and logs much of it—1.8 million acres, according to a recent study by the Lincoln Institute—to help pay for public education. In addition, it must approve all applications to harvest any timber in Washington. If someone's logging in this state, on private or public land, they must have the DNR's blessing.

But "the DNR has been problematic as a regulatory agency," Kennard said. It's under pressure from the state to log its own land as a non-tax source of income, and it's under pressure from timber companies in what attorney Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center (WFLC) calls a "no tree left behind" environment. "It's a don't-rock-the-boat culture," he said. "It's a very cronyistic, forester-friendly, we're-gonna-help-these-folks culture." (The head of the agency is an elected position, the state commissioner of public lands. The current commissioner is Peter Goldmark, a Democrat whose 2012 reelection campaign received quadruple the amount of money from logging and lumber companies as it did from his own party. Goldman donated to Goldmark's campaign, but says he's been disappointed by the commissioner.)

The DNR has also been hit with the budgetary cuts facing every state agency. Bill Blake has been cochair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council for more than 20 years. A DNR representative used to attend their meetings, he said, "But about two and half years ago, when the economy headed south, they were spread thin and wouldn't attend."

The result is a regulatory agency that is both overwhelmed and under pressure to not regulate too heavily. It gets around 12,000 timber harvest applications a year, Goldman said, and they're only $150 apiece: "You could log $5 million worth of wood with a $150 permit." And if a permit is not reviewed by the DNR within 30 days, it's automatically approved. "There is," he said, "a notorious amount of error in this process."

And it's not simply a problem with enforcing the rules—critics say the rules themselves are faulty. For example: After the massive 2007 slides on land Weyerhaeuser had been logging, geologist Dan McShane said, "A lot of people, including me, wondered, 'Why the heck were they allowed to clear-cut that area?' We since learned they were using a bad watershed analysis." As soon as McShane heard there was a landslide along the Stillaguamish, he knew it was the Hazel slope in Oso. (McShane and Lynne Rogers Miller, who cowrote the 1999 report for the army engineers, told the Seattle Times they knew right away, too.) "Amongst geologists, it was well-known," McShane said, "but that knowledge was not turned into better policy."

A 2004 application to log above the Hazel slide, right along the edge of the delicate groundwater recharge area, was submitted with a shaky hand-drawn map. "It would go against common sense to even dance up to the line," Kennard said. "And a hand-drawn map is kind of a joke. It just shows that the whole thing was not done carefully." The landowner, Grandy Lake Forest Associates, logged over the line and into the recharge zone anyway. ("Approximately one acre of harvest appears to be removed within the restricted groundwater recharge area," a DNR document says.) Grandy Lake has not responded to The Stranger's request for comment.

Goldman and other attorneys are trying to re-create the logging history of the area. The DNR has archived logging applications since 2002 online, including Grandy Lake's 2004 clear-cut and a 240-acre "selective cut" above the recharge area in 2009. The rest of the logging history, Goldman says, "literally has to be found in boxes in basements in the DNR." The Washington Forest Law Center has filed public disclosure requests. "DNR could be out in the backyard burning them right now," Goldman joked. "I'm sure a lot of people want to see those, not just us."

Just a few days before the landslide, the DNR approved another logging project about 20 miles west of Oso, on land so steep it will have to be logged by helicopter. The slopes, Goldman says, are around 65 degrees—black diamond skiing slopes, by comparison, start at 40 degrees—and have already experienced landslides. The WFLC, on behalf of some concerned residents who live beneath them, opposed the logging during a public-comment period. As a result, Goldman said, the DNR took 6 acres of the 200-acre timber sale off the table. "I felt like I'd read in the newspaper someday about the whole thing sliding," Goldman said. That project, like most of the logging on the Hazel site, is legal and DNR-sanctioned.

"The law allows a lot of bad stuff to happen," Goldman said. "The law has not caught up with the environment or with public safety. I'm speaking from 17 years of experience." Kennard, McShane, and Goldman agree that the DNR has some good employees and adjusts to new science, but slowly. "For the past three years, I've been fighting for rule changes on steep and unstable slopes. This stuff takes forever—the timber industry is very politically powerful, some of this rulemaking is very difficult to obtain because they have a voting block on the state forest practices board," Goldman said.

A DNR spokesperson wrote by e-mail that "due to the extremely high volume of phone calls and e-mails," it would not be able to respond to The Stranger's requests for comment in the near future. recommended


Comments (21) RSS

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22 dead, 20 missing, buried under mud 75 feet deep. Is it too much to hope that this tragedy will force the DNR to do their freaking job and rescind the logging industry's free pass on clearcutting?
Posted by portland scribe on April 2, 2014 at 10:42 AM · Report this
It's my understanding the National Forest Service does not allow any clear cutting - they require selective logging, which still does damage, but a lot less. Why can't DNR do the same?

For that matter, why do we have separate departments managing similar lands?

Posted by pragmatition on April 2, 2014 at 10:57 AM · Report this
Call me Scott 3
Well written. Good work.
Posted by Call me Scott on April 2, 2014 at 12:46 PM · Report this
NotSean 4
Good read.
Posted by NotSean on April 2, 2014 at 12:56 PM · Report this
emor 5

The Forest Service manages forestlands owned by the federal government. The DNR manages forestlands owned by the State of Washington. The Bureau of Land Management also manages public forestlands. The National Park Service is another big agency that manages forestlands. Additionally, huge swaths of Washington State are privately owned and managed by logging companies. Local tribes also own and manage an assortment of forestlands all over the state. All of these organizations manage these lands with different objectives and philosophies, even though at heart it's all just a bunch of forest. Two different National Forests can be managed in entirely different ways. Land management is very complicated issue with lots of history.
Posted by emor on April 2, 2014 at 1:04 PM · Report this
@1/2 - The DNR really don't have ultimate control over the situation. The State Legislature could ban clear-cuts, but I suspect DNR could not make a change like that without a change in the law. They also likely can't change their own under-staffing or the fact that permits are auto-approved after 30 days. The free pass for the logging industry is written into the law, even if DNR did everything it could possibly do under the existing law, it likely wouldn't be nearly enough.
Posted by brent.b on April 2, 2014 at 1:07 PM · Report this
You guys aren't going to blame George Bush for this one?

@2: You've never heard of political subdivisions?
Posted by dean.fuller on April 2, 2014 at 1:20 PM · Report this
biffp 8
Agree - well written. Out of respect for the victims hopefully there will be some changes made. It was shocking to have that announcement two days after that there was no warning. Coming from BC, I've always been surprised to see the evidence the DNR does not act as a steward. The government needs to be protecting the forest and that amazing river. This is a case of dereliction of duty.
Posted by biffp on April 2, 2014 at 1:41 PM · Report this
meanie 9
freedom county!
Posted by meanie http://www.spicealley.net on April 2, 2014 at 2:07 PM · Report this
I don't doubt that logging exacerbated the slide, but that slide was going to happen eventually, regardless of the history of logging done at the site. Likely logging hastened the slide occurring, but not logging the site would not have prevented the slide from occurring at all. The real problem is people living anywhere near that thing. It is easy to bash the DNR, nothing new in that, but to me the real outrage should be directed at the developers who built at the base of that slide and the county commissioners who let them.
Posted by screed on April 2, 2014 at 4:20 PM · Report this
"I don't doubt that logging exacerbated the slide, but that slide was going to happen eventually, regardless of the history of logging done at the site. Likely logging hastened the slide occurring, but not logging the site would not have prevented the slide from occurring at all. The real problem is people living anywhere near that thing."

That is exactly what is wrong with our society. To blame victims for the greed of clearcutting? SHAME on you! How DARE YOU?!!

That is to say people who live near a volcano are at fault while nuclear bombs are thrown into a volcano chimney!

Now. Yes, there are problems with soil composite on the hill sides, but remember that trees on those slopes (mature trees that is) absorb 30% of the rainfall easy. Absence of such creates potential for the rainfall seepage into the ground to penetrate the soil and thus to increase moisture content that SLOWLY flows downwards. That is large chunks of soil. The crack that Corps of Engineers have warned about were not a joke. What they have "repaired" was pointless and they knew it.

Who was to blame for this? The State for not keeping an oversight of the mudslide potential. The County for issuing building permits beneath the slide. That type of robo-signing now cost 30 human lives and counting. Stilly River is polluted beyond recognition. One can forget about fishing trout or salmon in this river for GENERATIONS to come.

The Tribe has sued the State to stop clear cutting. No one seemed to care. And what are they suppose to say now? "I told you so?"

Two years back we purchased a property in Oso. Did anyone warn us about this potential danger? NO! It took this tragedy to learn about this the hard way.

Look-up for your interest sake - how much taxes this part of Snohomish county contributes! 2-3 thousand a Year with property values at 150k upward to 500k!!! Who is going to buy these properties in near and far future? NO ONE! We are SCREWED!
Posted by rushin2 on April 2, 2014 at 8:52 PM · Report this
@1 Thank you, portland scribe!! Agreed!
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 2, 2014 at 10:09 PM · Report this
@7 I HAVE been blaming Bush for shit like this, Dean, ever since he illegally bought his way into Washington, D.C. TWICE, turning the Oval Office into an Oval Outhouse. Ronald Reagan opened the floodgates of Wall Street corruption by deregulating the banks, then Dubya and his gun nut pal, Cheney, put the oil soaked icing on the GOP's crooked-as-fuck white-collar cake. This is a longterm result of the Bush economy, yet twice-elected President Obama is blamed by the GOP and Tea Party for being the one left to fix it!
And look at the result: how many people of Oso can say they're better off, now, after two previous disastrous terms of George W. Bush, who left his bottomless mess for Obama to clean up?
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 2, 2014 at 10:21 PM · Report this
re; @13: Additionally, I read in the news that many who lost their homes along with everything else are still left with insurmountable mortgage debts. Those with unpaid mortgages of homes lost in the mudslide are being forgiven by Coast Bank, but most other financial institutions as well as FEMA are telling people in Oso that they're shit out of luck, because
1) Developers were allowed to build on a floodplain that was recognized as already vulnerable,
2) Big Timber clearcut the trees, and now
3) [FEMA] isn't offering flood insurance compensations because the 03/22/14 disaster "was a mudSLIDE, and not a mudFLOW" (doesn't this last listed final spit-in-the-eye remind anyone of the G.W. Bush Administration's & FEMA's abysmal handling of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina massive flooding that wiped out New Orleans, Louisiana?).
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 2, 2014 at 10:50 PM · Report this
Okay, okay. I came, I blogged, I vented, I'm shutting up now.
I'm premenopausal, turning 5-0, and I'm a little fired up right now.
My heartfelt condolences to all impacted by this awful tragedy.
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 2, 2014 at 10:57 PM · Report this
@11 Yes, you are right. That is exactly what is wrong with our society. Clear-cutting can have devastating effects, but so can building homes in floodplains, and building homes in the path of KNOWN unstable hillsides. Greedy and amoral developers and greedy sellers and feckless local officials brought us this tragedy. Why weren't you warned of the risk? Look up the history of the area and you will find out that many people knew of the hazard but either chose not to or were legally barred from informing you when you bought your property. There is a much much bigger scandal here than the DNR issuing logging permits. I hope media outlets like The Stranger don't take the easy way out and just blame the DNR. The story is much bigger than the DNR.
Posted by screed on April 2, 2014 at 11:23 PM · Report this
sperifera 17
@10 - Very well stated. It was a time bomb waiting to come down, regardless of whether or not it was logged, and regardless of whether or not people lived below it.
Posted by sperifera on April 3, 2014 at 8:47 AM · Report this
@10 & @17: Agreed. My father was an architectural designer who knew better than to ever build on a floodplain.
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 3, 2014 at 4:49 PM · Report this
If the companies doing the clear cutting on steep slopes, and the DNR people approving those clear cuts, were required to live at the base of those slopes, the clear cutting would stop immediately. But, it is never the ones who suffer the consequences who are creating the danger. When someone else's safety is at risk from your behavior, the risk is a minor one. When it is YOUR safety that is at risk from the same behavior, the risk is a major one. Why should I act prudently when I can make money by not acting prudently, when I know that that I will suffer no adverse consequences from my imprudent behavior?
Posted by bowen on April 4, 2014 at 9:35 AM · Report this
@19: Bingo! Now WHY can't corruption this irreparably toxic be STOPPED once and for all?
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 4, 2014 at 11:45 AM · Report this
" It gets around 12,000 timber harvest applications a year, Goldman said, and they're only $150 apiece: "You could log $5 million worth of wood with a $150 permit." And if a permit is not reviewed by the DNR within 30 days, it's automatically approved. "There is," he said, "a notorious amount of error in this process."

This is a typo and should be corrected. We (Whidbey Environmental Action Network) have been monitoring logging in Island County (Whidbey and Camano Islands) for 25 years now and get every rubber stamped logging "permit" for the County. It was a huge victory when DNR finally began charging a fee in the late 1990s, if I remember correctly). Its a $50, not $150, fee. And that's whether its a 10 acre selective cut on dry flat ground or a 200 acre clearcut on a steep hill weeping with water above a salmon stream. $50 period. Well, don't you think that Weyerhauser needs the subsidy?
Posted by 4500SignaturesGathered on April 15, 2014 at 8:51 PM · Report this

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