Since the Oso landslide last March, state regulators have been making changes in how they oversee logging around unstable slopes.
CONCRETE, Skagit County — Mike Janicki has spent 40 years as a logger, and his work brings him to the unstable hillsides around this upper Skagit Valley town.
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During past decades, there have been large and small slides here, some on cut land and some on forested land. Those slides have damaged homes, dumped a hillside of silt into a reservoir and spilled onto roads.
Again and again, Janicki and other loggers have returned to harvest fir, cedar and other trees.
Since the Oso disaster in neighboring Snohomish County one year ago, there has been only one application to log nearby slopes behind Concrete. That compares with a half-dozen requests in the 15 months before the landslide in the same 11,520-acre area.
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The searing images of the March 22, 2014, landslide — where homes were buried by a surge of mud, logs and debris carried across the valley floor and 43 people lost their lives — gave new definition to what can happen when the land gives way.
“We look at hillsides different now,” Janicki said. “So how are we going to treat the resource now compared to a year ago? More cautiously.”
That caution extends to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The department faces lawsuits from survivors and families of those who died that assert lax regulation of logging in a groundwater-recharge zone above the slope played a role in the disaster.
In public statements during the past year, DNR officials have downplayed the possibility that logging could have contributed to the Oso slide.
But during the past year, the agency has scrambled to beef up oversight of timber harvests on unstable slopes.
Last spring, the department’s forest-practices division amended harvest applications to gather more information about logging on or near unstable slopes. In a June memorandum, a DNR division manager asked staff to identify not only homes and highways that might be at risk, but also trailhead parking lots, picnic areas, campgrounds and even hang-gliding launch sites.
DNR also has started rewriting a forestry manual to offer more guidance on best practices for logging around unstable slopes.
The manual is only an advisory document. But timberland owners are unhappy with the extent of the changes, which they think might lead to new restrictions.
“We urge going slow,” Ken Miller, a tree farmer representing the Washington Farm Forestry Association, said in November comments to the state Forest Practices Board. “We fear an overreaction or rush to judgment regarding the Oso tragedy.”
DNR is also asking the Legislature to provide funding for more extended Lidar mapping, a laser-surveying technique, to identify geologic hazard zones and $3.2 million to help restore 10 of the staffing positions lost in earlier budget cuts.
“We currently have 45 staff to check on about 10,000 approved (forestry) applications,” said Sandra Kaiser, a DNR spokeswoman. “The complexity of the work is increasing, especially with respect to landslide hazards.”
The increased oversight has been supported by environmentalists who say the state hasn’t done enough to curb logging near unstable slopes.
Earlier this year, the Washington Forest Law Center challenged one of DNR’s own proposed timber sales on state land near Index because it lacked a written report from a geologist about a potentially unstable slope. That sale was put on hold until the application was resubmitted with a report.
“We are still very concerned that DNR paid short shrift to this sale,” said Peter Goldman of the Forest Law Center.
State regulators are now focused on improving guidance for logging in groundwater-recharge zones.
But figuring out the boundaries of these areas — and the risk posed by logging that land — has been a long-standing challenge.
These recharge zones drain into areas like the site of the Oso slide, where landslides occur when the earth gives way at great depth. Those are among the most infrequent but potentially more destructive of slides.
Landslides are a natural part of the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest environment. But state timber-harvest rules are based on research showing logging sometimes can increase the frequency and size of these slides.
The state can limit cutting in the recharge zones, where trees suck up moisture and intercept rain that otherwise would end up downhill.
But those areas, which can stretch for dozens of acres, are often prime logging ground.
“Absolutely, it is some of your best timber. It’s flatter (land) and it gets water,” Janicki said, as he walked through a lush forest of fir, cedar and alder beside an old landslide north of Concrete.
The hillside near Oso was where DNR first sought to assess the hazards and limit timber harvests in these zones.
In 1988, a team led by a University of Washington geologist found that logging in the upslope-recharge area significantly increased the amount of water in the soil for 16 to 27 years. The team found the greatest slide activity had occurred within 10 to 15 years after a timber harvest.
But the team had low confidence in its ability to accurately map the boundaries of the recharge zone.
So, in 1997, another research team used new technology to remap that zone. A state-approved watershed plan called for using this map in preparing timber harvests, but it was never incorporated in the plan.
That 1997 map would have protected about 5 of the 7.5 acres clear-cut in 2004 above the unstable zone.
This is an issue in the lawsuits against DNR.
Attorneys for the victims contend the state was negligent in allowing logging within the recharge zone outlined in the 1997 map, and failing to monitor the aftermath.
In 2006, two years after the logging ended, there was another major slide.
The lawsuits allege the slide led to even more water being flushed into the unstable hillside, setting the stage for last March’s disaster.
“The 2006 landslide changed things,” said Corrie Yackulic, one of the lawyers for plaintiffs who also name Snohomish County and a landowner in their lawsuit.
The DNR, in a report released in December, concluded that the team of scientists and regulators who wrote the 1997 watershed plan for the area made a conscious decision not to use the boundaries drawn up in the study.
But the report found that “the record lacks information about what factors may have been considered in this decision, and no further clarity was provided by interviews with team participants.”
The timber industry is still uneasy about DNR’s effort to rewrite the manual.
In the draft completed in late summer, the team of scientists advised the timber industry to take extra steps to examine subsurface conditions when there is a risk to public safety.
To get a peek underground, for example, the manual recommended the use of a range of possible tools, from augers that drill test pits to ground-penetrating radar.
Environmentalists have urged the Forest Practices Board to adopt the changes the science team proposed.
But timber industry representatives say the rewrite is too broad, sometimes confusing and borders on creating new regulations.
At a November board meeting, Kevin Godbout, a Weyerhaeuser representative, said many of the recommendations called for “expensive, time-consuming and in most cases unnecessary” analysis.
So far, the state board, composed of 13 members drawn from government and the private sector, hasn’t supported most of the changes sought by the industry. They have approved only minor edits.
Meanwhile, a new team of scientists is writing another section that will help estimate the distance that slides might travel as they run off a slope.
“This is going to be even more challenging, because there is a lot of uncertainty in the science of how you determine that,” said Wendy Gerstel, a geologist who consults on slope stability.
There is near certainty, though, that there will be more landslides.
On a slope above Concrete, Janicki points out fir trees with trunks that have bowed as the land underneath them has slowly crept downhill over decades.
In town, he notes a Catholic church steeple that he once helped fix after the ground moved, is once again tilting.
“We lost friends in that (Oso) slide, and no one in the industry wants to see this happen again,” Janicki said. “We need to know what caused it, and we need to know how to avoid it. ”