Bellingham Herald: "Lands commissioner tours landslide areas in Whatcom County"
By John Stark
After a tour of Whatcom County areas ravaged by landslides, state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark promised landowners that the Washington Department of Natural Resources will do its best to reduce the chances of future slides originating on the state's timber lands.
"I want to make sure that public health and safety are a prime consideration when we manage state lands," Goldmark told Nelson Road homeowner Debbie Van den Heuvel. Her Nelson Road home narrowly escaped destruction when mud, rock and logs cascaded down a steep slope and pushed up against a corner of the structure completed just last summer.
The slide began on DNR-managed state lands high above the Van den Heuvel property.
Goldmark, a Democrat, took office earlier this month after unseating Republican incumbent Doug Sutherland in the November election. He and regional DNR officials viewed the slide areas Thursday, Jan. 22. They pledged that state geologists would do a full report on the causes of the slides, and would try to determine if logging practices could be improved to reduce the chances of repeats.
"We'll share all the information we can with you," Goldmark told Van den Heuvel.
While regional DNR officials acknowledged that many of the slides of Jan. 7-8 originated on DNR forest lands, they said steep slopes and exceptionally bad weather, rather than logging, may have been the culprits in many cases.
Jeff May, DNR's Baker District manager, said slides originated in a variety of environments. Some slide areas had been harvested within the last 20 years, but others started in groves that were 60 or more years old. He told Goldmark that the most recent activity on the steep slopes above Nelson Road was about 16 years ago. May said DNR acquired the property after it had been logged by its previous owner, and it has since been replanted.
On the way to visit Van den Heuvel's home, May noted that it sits at the base of a steep slope.
"I don't know if I could sleep in that house," May said.
Van den Heuvel told Goldmark that she had talked to longtime Nelson Road residents before building, and had been told that there had never been any slide problems in the past 30 years.
She said she was prepared to hire geologists to find out what kind of protective structure could be built to protect her home from future slides, but she also expressed fears that the new gash in the mountainside would make recurrences more likely.
Van den Heuvel's neighbor, Cherry Fox, told Goldmark she had lived in her Nelson Road home for nine uneventful years before two slides roared down the steep hillside and ravaged her property. After mud and logs piled up against her own home early Jan. 7, she and her mother evacuated to a friend's house farther down the valley.
That was fortunate, because a second slide the following day almost upended the adjoining manufactured home her mother had occupied.
Fox gestured at the mud, rocks and logs packed several feet deep in her backyard, where vegetables and berries grew last summer.
"Now we get to start over again, if I can stay here," Fox said. "If it starts raining, I'm going to panic again."
Goldmark also visited the Marshall Hill Road area, where another huge slide blasted across the Mount Baker Highway and damaged several homes. May told Goldmark that the Marshall Hill Road slide originated on DNR land at least a mile and a half from the highway, blowing out two forest roads and picking up debris as it went. It crossed several privately owned forest parcels before petering out just short of the Nooksack River.
Cory McDonald, a DNR forester, said he chained up his truck and made the arduous trip up the hill not long after the slide, eventually having to slog through knee-deep snow to find the slide's starting point in a small wetland on DNR property.
McDonald said he couldn't be sure what happened, but it appeared as though an abandoned logging road at the wetland's outlet, dating from the 1940s, might have acted as a dam, holding back an accumulation of water until it blew out and touched off the slide.
Goldmark said his agency would assist affected property owners whenever possible.
"I'm not sure what our options are, but we'll be exploring that in the near future," Goldmark said. "Whatever we can do to be a good neighbor and help them, we will. I think we're all alarmed at the dimensions of the damage."
While the recent weather conditions - heavy snow followed by heavy rain - were unusual, Goldmark expressed concern that those kinds of conditions could become more frequent if the climate is changing. He said he wanted to make sure that DNR practices don't increase flood risk.
"We'll try and do better if we can," he said.