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Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance.

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Sierra Club Files Complaint Against Weyerhaeuser for Logging on Steep and Unstable Slopes

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On October 1, 2009, represented by the Washington Forest Law Center, the Sierra Club took a decisive step to protect forests and rivers by challenging the Weyerhaeuser Company’s “green” certified forestry conducted in Southwest Washington.
 Stillman Creek landslide, photo by David Perry

 Photograph by David Perry

What Happened?

The Sierra Club filed a complaint against Weyerhaeuser with the company’s forest certification system, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).  The complaint alleges that Weyerhaeuser violated several of SFI’s environmental standards when it conducted logging and roadbuilding on extremely steep and unstable slopes in its forests in Southwest Washington during the time period 1996-2007.     

During a storm in December 2007, many of these slopes produced massive landslides that damaged downstream private property and public resources by delivering large quantities of wood and sediment that exacerbated flooding.  The complaint makes the case that Weyerhaeuser knew or should have known from its own research and research that was readily available that its logging on these slopes would produce landslides under foreseeable Pacific Northwest precipitation conditions. The complaint asks SFI to suspend or revoke Weyerhaeuser’s certification and to prescribe conditions ensuring that Weyerhaeuser reforms its practices.

Why did Sierra Club file this complaint? 

A key priority of the Sierra Club is to encourage sustainable and environmentally-sound forestry on state and private land so that these forests provide resilient habitats for all forms of fish and wildlife in these days of climate change.  The Club believes that credible, independent forest certification is a promising tool that can encourage and reward responsible and sustainable forestry. 

But credible forest certification is threatened by certification systems that are little more than fronts for timber companies and industry trade associations.  Moreover, whether a forest certification system is environmentally credible depends, in part, on whether the system maintains meaningful environmental standards and enforces those standards on the ground. 

The citizens of Washington State were shocked and angered when massive landslides, log-jams, and flooding wreaked havoc on Southwest Washington in December 2007.  To understand what went wrong and what can be done to prevent future disasters, WFLC commissioned ENTRIX, an environmental consulting firm, to investigate these landslides.  The experts concluded that Weyerhaeuser engaged in highly risky forestry practices on steep and unstable slopes contrary to SFI’s environmental commitments.  Accordingly, the Sierra Club filed a complaint against Weyerhaeuser to hold the company accountable and to ensure that SFI’s environmental standards do not tolerate forestry practices that are environmentally risky and harmful.

What does the complaint allege?

The Sierra Club's complaint presents scientific evidence that Weyerhaeuser’s forest practices violated the following SFI standards that are required of SFI-certified forest landowners:

    • to conserve soil, and protect soil productivity
    • to identify and manage geologically important areas
    • to plan for wet-weather events
    • to replant all of the forests it logs
    • to protect riparian zones
    • to comply with state water quality standards
    • to conduct economically, environmentally and socially responsible forest practices

The complaint is based on scientific research conducted by WFLC and ENTRIX showing that Weyerhaeuser negligently logged extremely steep and unstable mountainsides in Southwest Washington despite overwhelming evidence that they were prone to landslides.  This steep slope logging triggered massive landslides, which in turn produced downstream log-jams and exacerbated flooding in a major regional rainstorm in December 2007.  Contrary to Weyerhaeuser’s claims, the landslides and the downstream damage they caused cannot fairly be attributed solely to the quantity of precipitation.  In fact, the rainstorm, while large, was not more than a “50 year” storm.

The complaint demonstrates that Weyerhaeuser’s logging was risky and irresponsible.  For example, Weyerhaeuser:

    • Clear-cut or built roads on many slopes exceeding 55 degrees without leaving forested buffers for many slide-prone areas.
    • Clear-cut or built roads on 987 acres of slopes predicted as certain to deliver to streams.
    • Clear-cut or built roads on 841 acres of areas that have slid in the past.
    • Clear-cut or built roads on 1,771 acres that Weyerhaeuser’s own studies rated as “high hazard.”
    • Clear-cut or built roads on 3,461 acres of slopes that had high soil erosion potential.
    • Had landslides that totaled about 648 acres deliver approximately 3.1 to 6.3 million cubic yards of sediment to perennial streams in two of its watersheds.

Despite Weyerhaeuser’s acknowledgement that this area is “a landscape vulnerable to mass wasting” and its access to sources of best available science that map landslide risk, Weyerhaeuser harvested forests and built roads on thousands of acres of slopes that had a high hazard rating, probable stream delivery rating, a history of landsliding in the past, high slope instability, high soil erosion potential, and that are located in peak rain-on-snow zones. 

Landslide densities inside Weyerhaeuser logging and road-building units were consistently higher than landslide densities inside harvest and road-building units on neighboring private industrial forest lands with comparable precipitation, lithology, stand age, and slope instability.  When all of these variables were combined in a multivariate model, the odds of sliding on Weyerhaeuser lands were 2.2 to 2.7 times the odds of sliding on other private industrial forest lands with all other factors (including precipitation) being equal.

In addition, the ENTRIX report showed that the landslides were linked to the flooding and associated damage downstream.  It also found that logging and road-building increased the incidence of landslides, and the landslides delivered large quantities of woody debris and sediment to the stream network.  Large log jams accumulated downstream, and most of this wood probably originated from the landslides as opposed to the riparian buffers.  The flooding was exacerbated by these log jams, by the build-up of sediment in the stream channels, and by the scouring of stream beds and banks in the headwaters. 

Read the Sierra Club’s complaint.

Read the ENTRIX report.

Read Architecture Week’s October 23, 2009 article, “High Tension Over Big Timber.”

Weyerhaeuser’s steep slope logging was covered extensively in the Seattle Times special report, “Landslides and logging: What went wrong?”  The Seattle Times staff recently won a journalistic award for its coverage.  Read the report here.

Photographs of Weyerhaeuser’s logging (taken in April 2008) can be viewed at: http://homepage.mac.com/davidperryphoto1/Landslide/index.html

 

Related WFLC advocacy challenging the SFI certification system:

The Sierra Club complaint was filed two weeks after WFLC, on behalf of another forest protection organization, ForestEthics, filed complaints against SFI with the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service.  Those complaints allege that SFI is a timber-industry funded and operated forest certification system that violates federal fair advertising guidelines and IRS rules governing the operation of not-for-profit public charities.  On September 12, 2009, the New York Times reported on the filing of the complaints.  Read the article here