Timber-industry officials and environmentalists remain at odds over a marathon effort to overhaul the state manual that guides logging on unstable slopes.

Share story

A marathon effort to overhaul the state manual that guides logging on unstable terrain has ended with timber-industry officials and environmentalists at odds over what the document should say.

Industry officials think the rewrite represents the best science, and they support its adoption when the state Forest Practices Board meets Tuesday.

“We need to get this out so that people can be trained on it, and so people can put it to use,” said Karen Terwilleger, a senior policy director for the Washington Forest Protection Association.

Environmentalists say the version released last week by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has significantly weaker language than an earlier draft, and omits important information that could help determine which forest lands need more scrutiny before logging.

“We need to get this right, and that’s why we are holding out our support,” said Peter Goldman, of the Washington Forest Law Center.

DNR officials say they have heard the environmentalists concerns, but think the draft is in good shape.

“We’re at the point that we don’t think that there is anything major that is missing,” said Steve Bernath, a DNR deputy supervisor.

The manual rewrite was launched more than a year ago in the aftermath of the March 2014 Oso landslide that killed 43 people. Though state forestry officials downplayed the possibility that logging in a groundwater-recharge zone could have played a role in the disaster, they backed an expedited rewrite of the manual section for harvesting on or around unstable slopes.

Landslides are a natural part of the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest environment. But state timber-harvest rules are based on research that shows logging sometimes can increase the frequency and size of these slides.

The manual offers advice to landowners and loggers about how to assess slide risks, and when to consider calling in a state-approved scientific expert for more detailed analysis.

The manual does not require any action — only regulations can do that. But it does establish best practices that can be cited by plaintiffs if a timber company gets hauled into court. The potentially high-stakes in such litigation have been underscored by lawsuits filed by survivors of the Oso landslide that seek damages from the forest landowner that logged above the unstable slope that gave way.

The manual rewrite began with a science team meeting to decide what information to include in the updates. Environmentalists and industry officials could observe the meetings but were not allowed to participate.

But forest-industry officials were unhappy with the extent of science-team changes, which they feared might amount to new restrictions on logging.

“We urge going slow,” Ken Miller, a tree farmer representing the Washington Farm Forestry Association, said in November 2014 comments to the state Forest Practices Board. “We fear an overreaction or rush to judgment regarding the Oso tragedy.”

The second phase of the manual overhaul focused on how to assess the distance landslides might travel. During these bi-weekly meetings, the format was changed to allow industry officials, as well as environmental groups, to participate in discussions about the how manual should be rewritten.

That approach was questioned by David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist who served on a state commission that examined the response to the Oso landslide.

“These are technical issues that should not be subject to a consensus process among vested stakeholders,” said Montgomery, who told The Seattle Times he will submit a written statement detailing his concerns about the rewrite to the state Forest Practices Board.

During the bi-weekly meetings, the “conservation caucus” representing environmentalists lobbied for the inclusion of several measures that were eventually left out of the final document.

They included:

• A screening tool developed by a geologist to help estimate how far a shallow landslide might travel. Without this screen, “potentially dangerous” landslides might be missed, according to Chris Mendoza, who represented the conservation caucus at the meetings.

• A document developed by another geologist that describes how to use an aerial laser scanning technique called LIDAR to identify complex, rotational deep-seated landslides such as the formation that gave way at Oso.

In an Oct. 29 letter to the state Forest Practices Board, Mendoza also noted that the board had backed away from some of the stronger language recommended by scientists who helped rework the manual.

In several instances, state officials had altered sentences that said steps “should” be taken, and instead said they “may’ or “could” be taken. In other instances, language was deleted all together.

“Substantive changes to content proposed by DNR could increase the risk to public safety,” Mendoza wrote in his letter to the Forest Practices Board, which will have the final say on approving the rewrite.

Terwilleger, of the Washington Forest Protection Association, said the manual is supposed to offer suggestions for how to assess unstable slopes, not create new standards that must be followed.

“I think the revisions are appropriate to make sure the document is guidance … rather than a rule itself,” Terwilliger said.