Two days after the Hazel slope in Oso turned into what one rescue worker described as “a blender” of mud and trees hurtling downhill, a Snohomish County official told a roomful of reporters: “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.” He was wrong. The unstable composition of the slope—loose silt and sand, deposited by glaciers on top of a layer of clay—was so well-known that a 1967 article in the Seattle Times referred to it as “slide hill,” and a 1999 geological report for the Army Corps of Engineers discussed its “potential for large-scale catastrophic failure.”
In the following week, government spokespeople found things to blame for the catastrophe—record-breaking rainfall, the Stillaguamish River cutting into the base of the slope—but one factor they didn’t discuss much was money. Reporters dug up a decades-old history of warnings from scientists, who said the slope had been logged for about a century and that continued logging would exacerbate its already-dangerous condition. Companies continued logging anyway, under a patchwork of shifting regulations from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Paul Kennard, a geologist who now works for the National Park Service at Mount Rainier, said he worked with the Tulalip tribe in the 1980s to restrict timber harvests near the Hazel slope because of fears that it would collapse, filling the Stillaguamish with silt and damaging the salmon and steelhead fisheries. They won a partial victory by getting some of the area just above the slope designated as a “groundwater recharge zone”—a place where rainfall soaks through the ground and “recharges” the water table, acting as a lubricant beneath the already unstable layers of earth, making them more likely to slide.
A watershed analysis report from the late 1990s gave the Hazel slope a hazard rating of “high,” explaining that “Ground water supply to a particular landslide can be increased in the short term by clear-cutting or wildfire within its recharge area. Alternatively, recharge in the longer term can be reduced by reforestation.” A 1998 paper by geologists Daniel Miller and Joan Sias pointed out that evapotranspiration—the amount of rainfall sucked up by trees and released into the air—was between 45 and 75 percent on the Hazel slope. The message was clear: Taking away more trees would drastically increase the amount of water soaking into the ground and lubricating the slide.
But in the pro-logging political climate at the time, said Kennard, the geologist, the Tulalip’s ability to establish an off-limits groundwater recharge zone felt like “a true victory.” But the lines, he explained, were drawn somewhat arbitrarily, without drilling to test where the water was and what it was doing. “There was tremendous pressure,” he said, “from the timber industry and regulators—the DNR—to minimize it.”
The Department of Natural Resources manages 3 million acres of state land and logs much of it—1.8 million acres, according to a recent study by the Lincoln Institute—to help pay for public education. In addition, it must approve all applications to harvest any timber in Washington. If someone’s logging in this state, on private or public land, they must have the DNR’s blessing.
But “the DNR has been problematic as a regulatory agency,” Kennard said. It’s under pressure from the state to log its own land as a non-tax source of income, and it’s under pressure from timber companies in what attorney Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center (WFLC) calls a “no tree left behind” environment. “It’s a don’t-rock-the-boat culture,” he said. “It’s a very cronyistic, forester-friendly, we’re-gonna-help-these-folks culture.” (The head of the agency is an elected position, the state commissioner of public lands. The current commissioner is Peter Goldmark, a Democrat whose 2012 reelection campaign received quadruple the amount of money from logging and lumber companies as it did from his own party. Goldman donated to Goldmark’s campaign, but says he’s been disappointed by the commissioner.)
The DNR has also been hit with the budgetary cuts facing every state agency. Bill Blake has been cochair of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council for more than 20 years. A DNR representative used to attend their meetings, he said, “But about two and half years ago, when the economy headed south, they were spread thin and wouldn’t attend.”
The result is a regulatory agency that is both overwhelmed and under pressure to not regulate too heavily. It gets around 12,000 timber harvest applications a year, Goldman said, and they’re only $150 apiece: “You could log $5 million worth of wood with a $150 permit.” And if a permit is not reviewed by the DNR within 30 days, it’s automatically approved. “There is,” he said, “a notorious amount of error in this process.”
And it’s not simply a problem with enforcing the rules—critics say the rules themselves are faulty. For example: After the massive 2007 slides on land Weyerhaeuser had been logging, geologist Dan McShane said, “A lot of people, including me, wondered, ‘Why the heck were they allowed to clear-cut that area?’ We since learned they were using a bad watershed analysis.” As soon as McShane heard there was a landslide along the Stillaguamish, he knew it was the Hazel slope in Oso. (McShane and Lynne Rogers Miller, who cowrote the 1999 report for the army engineers, told the Seattle Times they knew right away, too.) “Amongst geologists, it was well-known,” McShane said, “but that knowledge was not turned into better policy.”
A 2004 application to log above the Hazel slide, right along the edge of the delicate groundwater recharge area, was submitted with a shaky hand-drawn map. “It would go against common sense to even dance up to the line,” Kennard said. “And a hand-drawn map is kind of a joke. It just shows that the whole thing was not done carefully.” The landowner, Grandy Lake Forest Associates, logged over the line and into the recharge zone anyway. (“Approximately one acre of harvest appears to be removed within the restricted groundwater recharge area,” a DNR document says.) Grandy Lake has not responded to The Stranger‘s request for comment.
Goldman and other attorneys are trying to re-create the logging history of the area. The DNR has archived logging applications since 2002 online, including Grandy Lake’s 2004 clear-cut and a 240-acre “selective cut” above the recharge area in 2009. The rest of the logging history, Goldman says, “literally has to be found in boxes in basements in the DNR.” The Washington Forest Law Center has filed public disclosure requests. “DNR could be out in the backyard burning them right now,” Goldman joked. “I’m sure a lot of people want to see those, not just us.”
Just a few days before the landslide, the DNR approved another logging project about 20 miles west of Oso, on land so steep it will have to be logged by helicopter. The slopes, Goldman says, are around 65 degrees—black diamond skiing slopes, by comparison, start at 40 degrees—and have already experienced landslides. The WFLC, on behalf of some concerned residents who live beneath them, opposed the logging during a public-comment period. As a result, Goldman said, the DNR took 6 acres of the 200-acre timber sale off the table. “I felt like I’d read in the newspaper someday about the whole thing sliding,” Goldman said. That project, like most of the logging on the Hazel site, is legal and DNR-sanctioned.
“The law allows a lot of bad stuff to happen,” Goldman said. “The law has not caught up with the environment or with public safety. I’m speaking from 17 years of experience.” Kennard, McShane, and Goldman agree that the DNR has some good employees and adjusts to new science, but slowly. “For the past three years, I’ve been fighting for rule changes on steep and unstable slopes. This stuff takes forever—the timber industry is very politically powerful, some of this rulemaking is very difficult to obtain because they have a voting block on the state forest practices board,” Goldman said.
A DNR spokesperson wrote by e-mail that “due to the extremely high volume of phone calls and e-mails,” it would not be able to respond to The Stranger‘s requests for comment in the near future.
Photo by Kelly O