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NW Public Radio: "Debate Continues Over Steep Slope Logging"

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June 10, 2008 -- Austin Jenkins' report on a tour of the site of the December 2007 Stillman Creek mudslide.

Northwest Public Radio

Steep slope logging is likely to become a top issue in this fall's campaign for Washington State Lands Commissioner. It became front page news after last winter's devastating storms in Southwest Washington. Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports.

It took a visit to the now famous Stillman Creek mudslides to bring current Washington State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland and his challenger Peter Goldmark together.

Tour Guide: "Okay, this is the first of our stops for today."

This is where Weyerhaeuser clearcut a steep hillside. Then last December nearly 20 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours triggering a series of mudslides. Huge sections of the hillside simply caved away - sending a wall of mud into the creek below. A Seattle Times photographer in a helicopter captured the aftermath. The photo sparked a debate that continues to this day.

Goldmark: "Well this is clearly on Sutherland's watch."

Goldmark, a Democrat, points the finger at Sutherland - his opponent in the lands commissioner race.

Goldmark: "It's unacceptable, yes, we must do better."

Goldmark says lax oversight by the Department of Natural Resources allowed logging in too steep an area. He accuses Sutherland of having a cozy relationship with the logging industry.

Sutherland: "I'm not cozy with the forest industries."

Sutherland says what happened at Stillman Creek was a 500-year storm that no one could have anticipated.

Sutherland: "Try to envision dumping 55 million gallons of water on that hillside and try to imagine what would happen. Well you can see what happened."

Sutherland says DNR is reviewing whether it needs to improve its oversight of logging on private lands. And whether steep slope logging rules need to be rewritten. It's a policy debate that's quickly becoming a political football. Even one of the most vocal scientists on steepslope logging has given 20 bucks to candidate Goldmark. David Montgomery says reforms are needed.

Montgomery: "If we've known for well over a decade how to identify the steepest, most highest failure probability parts in a landscape like this why are we still clearcutting them?"

But the logging industry says it's not the clearcuts that are the problem. Mark Doumit is with the Washington Forest Protection Association. He points out there were slides on forested slopes too.

Doumit: "I see half a dozen landslides in tall timber and some here in reprod - that's ten, fifteen years old and some here on the slope that we've all seen the picture of."

A state funded study of steep slope logging practices is due out this fall - just about the time voters will be casting their votes for lands commissioner. I'm Austin Jenkins reporting.