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Seattle Times: "Weyerhaeuser, environmentalists argue logging's effect on floods"

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January 11, 2008 -- A state Senate committee heard sharply divergent views Thursday about the role that logging may have played in exacerbating the early-December floods in Southwest Washington.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004119378_logging11m.html

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — A state Senate committee heard sharply divergent views Thursday about the role that logging may have played in exacerbating the early-December floods in Southwest Washington.

During the storm, dozens of slides ripped down heavily logged mountain slopes, carrying wood, rock and mud into the rain-swollen tributaries of the Chehalis River and downstream communities. The practices of forest-products powerhouse Weyerhaeuser drew particular scrutiny after The Seattle Times published a photograph of numerous slides on a clear-cut hillside in Lewis County.

Weyerhaeuser officials told the Senate Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation Committee that they will be reviewing their forestry practices in the storm's aftermath.

But they said the slides occurred on both clear-cut and forested acreage, and were largely the result of an extreme storm.

"Overall, forestry and public resources fared pretty well," said Kevin Godbout, Weyerhaeuser's timberlands external and regulatory affairs director. "But if you were personally impacted, that might not be true."

Others testified that state regulators have frequently allowed logging of unstable slopes, despite evidence that the cutting can increase the frequency and size of slides.

"I think we may fairly ask whether the recent landsliding and flood damage are what one might expect from existing policy," said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor who studies landslides. "Unfortunately, I see few surprises here."

Environmental groups want new legislation to toughen state laws so that more unstable slopes would be spared from clear-cutting.

Current laws don't do enough to assess the cumulative effects of clear-cut logging in a single watershed and exempt too many unstable slopes from reviews by independent geologists, said Karl Forsgaard, who testified on behalf of seven environmental groups.

State Department of Natural Resources officials said they will be studying the storm's aftermath and assessing the effectiveness of state forestry rules.

"I want to understand what's going on and how we can do a better job. We can't just ignore it," said Sen. Ken Jacobsen, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the committee.

The storm hit during the first week of December, slamming the coast with wind gusts that topped 100 miles an hour and dumping the most intense rain further inland.

The Seattle Times photograph, by Steve Ringman, was taken with a 20-mm wide-angle lens a few days after the storm hit. At the hearing, Weyerhaeuser's Godbout said the slope looked less steep when seen from a different perspective, and — on a screen — he showed a corporate photograph with a different view of the slides and slope.

There is still no consensus on the severity of the December storm.

State climatologist Phil Mote of the University of Washington said the storm fell far short of setting records. The data he reviewed indicated rainfall of 4 to 7 inches in lower elevations, with slightly more rain at higher elevations.

"This is not a top-three rainfall event," Mote said. "I want to stress that."

But Weyerhaeuser officials said one of the gauges on corporate land recorded nearly 20 inches of rain during the storm. Mote hadn't reviewed the company's gauges.

Mote said global warming may allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture, and thus in the decades ahead trigger more intense storms worldwide.

Mote said it is still unclear if that trend will hold in the Northwest. Since 1977, Mote noted, weather records indicate that the Chehalis and Centralia area have endured extreme rainstorms with greater frequency.

State officials estimate that the storm produced some 140,000 truckloads of downed timber. Much of it is hemlock that needs to be harvested within the next six to 15 months to retain any value.

Weyerhaeuser and other logging companies have launched a major effort to salvage timber blown down by the storm.

It will take another huge effort to remove woody debris now littering some farm fields. If the wood isn't removed, it could prevent planting of high-value crops in the spring.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.