Life in Bay Center on Willapa Bay

Living in a maritime fishing village in Southwest Washington state on Willapa Bay

Logging Impact, Lawmakers Hold Hearing About Flood

See original article   Jan 11, 2008 at The Chronicle Online (Lewis County) which includes photos and streaming video of the hearing.

Logging Impact?

Lawmakers Hold Hearing About Flood

By Dan Schreiber
The Chronicle  Jan 11, 2008

OLYMPIA – The human impact on Lewis County flooding was examined Thursday during testimony about logging practices and commercial development to the Senate Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation Committee.

The hearing centered around last month’s mudslides on Weyerhaeuser land near Pe Ell. Company officials contended clear-cut harvesting was much less a factor than the overnight storm in early December that their rain gauges measured to have dropped 14 inches during the tropical weather system’s strongest 24 hours, 20 inches in all.

“In one area you’ll see a slide and then you’ll drive 10 miles and see very little damage,” said Kevin Godbout, director of regulatory and external affairs for Weyerhaeuser, which owns more than 2 million acres of commercial forestland in the region. “That shows us that the driving mechanism there was the extreme weather.”

Professor Says Rules Are Lacking

Karl Forsgaard, a spokesman for conservation groups, said different logging practices on the land in the Stillman Creek watershed could have prevented the steep slopes from giving way and dumping debris into the stream. Forsgaard said current state forest regulations to do with steep or unstable slopes don’t go far enough to protect the public.

“In short, unless the Legislature authorizes and directs the Forest Practices Board to change the rules, then in the future, clear-cut-caused landslides will again and again result in the kind of flooding that we just saw in Lewis County in December,” Forsgaard said.

A Seattle Times photograph of one stripped hillside prompted University of Washington geomorphology professor Dave Montgomery to suggest Weyerhaeuser’s practices on the land, though legal, had ill-considered state approval and fundamental flaws in the mandatory geological analysis. He created a rough computer model of specific places prone to instability.

“Either the geologist failed to adequately assess the risk of the slope failure, or the criteria generally employed under current practices do not in fact recognize potentially unstable slopes,” Montgomery said, “or risky behavior in the form of clear-cut logging is routinely allowed on potentially unstable slopes.”

Timber Harvesters Cite Heavy Rainfall

Weyerhaeuser officials, however, showed 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.

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.

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.

Local Concerns

Lewis County Commissioner Ron Averill presented photographs of the flood fallout, including uprooted trees and the thick layer of mud that is still being removed from communities below the Willapa Hills. Averill provided a comprehensive assessment of the disaster and urged lawmakers to carefully consider if any major levee and dam project protects the Twin Cities, not just Interstate 5. Still, Averill stressed the importance of protecting the interstate and said keeping it dry is a security concern.

“That’s a national defense highway,” Averill said. “When that highway is interdicted, you can’t move troops from Fort Lewis to Portland.”

Chehalis resident Julie Powe told the committee she wants a project that doesn’t further endanger her home on South Scheuber Road. Proposed levees devised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are not designed to protect that section of the floodplain.

“I pray that you will keep in mind as the flood debate heats up, there are more than 150 homes, and more than 55 farms and businesses that will suffer worse damage if your sole solution is to build new levees and raise the existing ones,” Powe said. “If the water is not allowed to spread out … the amount of water on the (other) side of the levees will be greatly increased.”

Powe also expressed that some local residents are concerned about commercial development in the floodplain alongside the interstate. City or county approval of development is based largely on flood plain maps drawn up in the early 1980s.

“The biggest frustration of the people in this area,” Powe said, “is the continual filling of the areas where the water used to be allowed to go: the Riverside area, Chehalis sewage treatment plant, places inside the dike such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot. … If these areas were left vacant, a lot more water could have been stored there without causing damage.”

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, the Seattle Democrat who chairs the committee, 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,” Jacobsen said. “We can’t just ignore it.”

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