Seattle Times: "Risky timber practices worsened December flooding"
By Peter J. Goldmark
Guest Columnist, Special to The Times
Homes are damaged or destroyed. Many farms and businesses are threatened or lost. Cleanup will continue for months. Economic recovery for many will take years.
While some in government and the timber industry have referred to the record floods as an "act of God," clearly there was a human hand involved that made a bad situation worse. In this case, the buck stops at the Department of Natural Resources, tasked with permitting timber sales — even on private land, in this case Weyerhaeuser — on slide-prone, steep slopes.
As stark photos of the clear-cut hillside illustrate, the agency permitted a clear-cut on a slope that should never have been logged in this manner, if at all. Led by Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, agency personnel acted against state rules designed to balance harvest goals with protecting property, public safety and the environment. In short, they failed to exercise appropriate professional distance between a public agency with a broad public mission and the industry they are tasked to oversee.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of lax oversight and too-cozy relationships with industry, whether timber or large developers. From land swaps that result in forests lost to strip malls and vacation homes to similar land-damaging clear-cuts, the department and its leadership are failing to protect both public health and the long-term value of our public land.
At a state Senate hearing on the floods held on Jan. 10, agency personnel defended their actions, and predictably placed responsibility on the severe weather. Yet, independent scientists confirmed that while the rain was abnormally intense, the flooding itself was indeed made catastrophic as a result of human action, in this case logging the slopes and development on the floodplain.
It's time to move forward with two initial steps that can help restore balance and accountability.
First, an independent audit of how logging permits are prioritized and approved is critical to helping too-often-overworked land managers, biologists and other on-the-ground workers better assess the impacts of risky timber harvests. Part of this is also to determine where the agency needs to provide a more critical review of permits, and better reflect the goals of promoting local economic growth, maintenance of rural school trusts, and safeguarding environmental and community values.
The Legislature passed in 2006 — and voters reaffirmed that same year — performance audits for state agencies. This is a perfect opportunity for the state auditor or Forest Practices Board to initiate such an overview of DNR performance.
Second, the state Forest Practices Board should, at its February meeting, take action to review and strengthen steep-slope logging regulations. The damage to Lewis County clearly was made worse by mudslides from the clear-cuts, building up at the base of the hills, bursting from pressure, and sending torrents of dirt, trees and water across a floodplain already stressed from years of development and pavement.
There are lessons to be learned from every tragedy which, if we do not heed, we risk seeing over and over again. In this case, it may only be a matter of time before another flood, initiated by another ill-advised clear-cut.
But, with proper oversight and accountability, we can prevent any new clear-cuts on steep terrain that only damage our communities, our environment and our economy.
Peter J. Goldmark is an Okanogan rancher and candidate for Washington commissioner of public lands.