KING 5 News: "Clear-cut logging may have played part in devastating floods"
OLYMPIA, Wash. - Logging practices, as well as the state's oversight of clearcutting on steep slopes, came under scrutiny Thursday at a special legislative hearing on whether logging and development might have played a role in December's devastating southwest Washington floods.
The hearing before the Senate Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation Committee was sparked by a Seattle Times photograph showing severe mudslides on a steep Lewis County mountain slope that had been clearcut near a Chehalis River tributary. Numerous slides crashed into Stillman Creek, adding to the mix of mud, wood debris and floodwaters that inundated homes and farms in the Boistfort Valley west of Chehalis.
"I felt it was imperative to make sure the committee was taking a look at this," said Sen. Ken Jacobsen, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the committee. Jacobsen said no measures have yet been proposed to the Legislature, but he expects that some environmental groups may propose some. "I want to understand what's going on and how we can do a better job. We can't just ignore it."
Officials with Weyerhaeuser Co., which owns more than 2 million acres of commercial forestland in the region, said a combination of snow, wind and rain from the December storms created a "rare and extreme magnitude" weather event that dropped as much as 20 inches of rain in some areas. And they displayed another photo of the same hilltop depicted in the newspaper photo, but taken from a different angle. The second photo showed a mudslide in an area covered by trees.
"Landslides are going to occur," said Bob Bilby, senior scientific adviser with Weyerhaeuser. "They're going to occur regardless of what type of management you do on the land."
Eric Schroff, region manager for the state Department of Natural Resources' Pacific Cascade Region, told lawmakers that a majority of landslides occur "in direct relation to these intense winter storms" and that the effect of timber harvesting is "highly variable."
"Landslides are found across the landscape in forested areas as well as harvested areas, parks and large cities and towns," he said.
But David Montgomery, professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington, argued that current forest practice rules don't protect against major landslides.
"It appears to me that the flooding and landslide problems this December stemmed in no small part from the combination of an unusually large but expectable storm and decades of risky behavior both in upland forestry practices and downstream flood plain development," Montgomery told committee members. "The combination puts people at risk and will do so again under the present system."
DNR spokeswoman Patty Henson said that the forest practice rules are "a rigorous system of protection for public resources."
"They're founded in science and they're always under review," she said, noting that based on this storm they will be reviewed again.
"This was a significant, extraordinary storm event with very unusual amounts of precipitation and wind in a concentrated short time and in very localized areas, so there was a lot of damage," she added.
Philip Mote, a research scientist at the University of Washington, as well as the state climatologist, said that while the Chehalis River had the "one of the largest flow events ever experienced on this river," the rainfall averages in lower elevations were only between 5 and 7 inches over four days.
Others challenged those numbers, noting his numbers didn't take into account some higher elevation areas that got significantly more rain.
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said that the company is doing its own assessment, to find out how much, if any, of the logging contributed to the severity of the mudslides, but he acknowledged that the Times photo put the spotlight on logging.
"It was a dramatic photo," he said, which "opened up a lot of questions about whether or not practices were adequate. That's the thing we all want to look at."
"As you learn things, as you gain more scientific data, you can adapt your practices accordingly, and that's what we intend to do as a result of this catastrophic event - look at all of these issues around landslides and determine if something can be done better."