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Washington Updates Guidelines on Landslide-Prone Slopes

November 11, 2015

Washington forestry officials have updated state guidelines for evaluating unstable slopes that, if logged, could contribute to landslides.
The Washington Forest Practices Board took up the issue Tuesday. It has been a topic of some controversy following the 2014 landslide that killed 43 people in the community of Oso in Washington’s North Cascades. Land above the Oso slide zone was logged in 2004 and replanted in 2005 — prompting some critics to blame the removal of trees for the disaster.

After lengthy debate and several breaks, the board unanimously approved updates to the guidelines that were favored by the timber industry. However, the board also took steps to address conservationists’ concerns before it meets in February.
“I don’t think we’re at consensus but I think we can get closer than we are,” said board member Joe Stohr, who is the deputy director of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.  
Nearly 20 months have passed since the Oso landslide, prompting environmentalists and geologists to complain that the state has been too slow and done too little to adequately update its approval process for logging operations on lands that may be prone to landslides.

But conservationists and timber industry representatives alike seemed satisfied with the outcome of Tuesday’s lengthy meeting.

“We think we achieved something today,” said Peter Goldman, director of the Washington Forest Law Center. “The bottom line is we have to work the process in the future to make sure the public safety is protected.”  
Goldman coauthored a letter that criticized the state Department of Natural Resource’s unstable slope evaluation guidelines. Among its many complaints were the charge that the department used “weak and vague” language and that it failed to include adequate guidance for terrain with deep-seated landslide risks, like the slope where the Oso mudslide happened.
Kevin Goodbout from the timber company Weyerhaeuser said the board’s action represented a balanced attempt to improve public safety while accepting the reality that landslide risk can’t be eliminated altogether, no matter what limits are placed on human activity.

“These landslides are naturally occurring and they will continue to occur,” he said.
David Montgomery is a geomorphologist at the University of Washington who has studied landslides in the Northwest extensively. He wrote a letter to the state expressing concern that the state manual’s updated guidelines will not provide adequate technical guidance to landowners who want to log on or near potentially unstable slopes.
He said the guidance may lead to forest practices “that should not necessarily be approved if prioritizing protecting public safety and resources is a primary policy objective.”

Holly Koon, a small woodlot owner in Whatcom County, said the board should not adopt the new guidelines without strengthening them because they won’t do enough to protect the public.

“Have you ever felt the ground shake and the too-loud-to-scream roar of a massive landslide release and felt your heart stop and panic, only to start beating again as you realize it was across the valley and not overhead?” she asked the board. “Well I have.”

Koon has previously sued the state for approving logging on an area near her home. The North Zender timber sale she sued over was in an area where a deep-seated landslide had previously occurred, ending 750 feet from the current location of the elementary school near Sumas Mountain.

“The policy you make will drive the practices on the ground you choose,” she said. “And I’m here to ask you to choose human safety as your priority outcome.”

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Work at the Oso slide site.

Courtesy Snohomish County