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Picture of Clearcut Triggers Debate Over Logging Practices

A single newspaper photograph has triggered a debate over logging practices in the Northwest.

The photo shows a clear-cut hillside that slid into a creek during last month’s Pineapple Express storms.

Mud and debris in streams and rivers helped contribute to devastating record floods in Southwest Washington. A University of Washington professor and timber giant Weyerhaeuser faced-off Thursday at a legislative hearing. Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins reports.

It’s the proverbial a picture is worth a thousand words.

David Montgomery: “If I can your attention to the famous graphic, I guess."

At a legislative hearing in Olympia, UW geologist David Montgomery displayed an aerial photograph shot by a Seattle Times photographer. It shows a hill stripped from top to bottom of trees.
David Montgomery: “At least six discreet landslides that you can see in this photograph occurred on this slope where the DNR approved forest practice application indicated that, I quote, ‘the harvest unit was reviewed by a qualified geologist and no potentially unstable slopes were found.’”
Given that landslides did happen, Montgomery suggested that either the geologist was wrong or that the criteria used to judge slide risk is flawed.
David Montgomery: “This site was cut recently and so clearly current practice allows clear cutting on potentially unstable slopes. About that I can see no room for debate.”
Then it was Weyerhaeuser’s turn. Kevin Godbout, the logging company’s director of external affairs, seemed to squirm in his chair.
Kevin Godbout: “After the last presentation I feel a little bit like the pig invited to the BBQ.”
That got a chuckle or two. Godbout proceeded to make the case that the December storms were an extraordinary one, two, three punch that dumped up to 20-inches of rain in 24-hours in some locations.
Kevin Godbout: It’s just what we think is an example of an extreme magnitude event here where you make predictions about what may be stable and what may not and then given the type of rain we had a very unusual response to that.”
In other words it was storms of biblical proportion, not clear cut logging on steep slopes that triggered the slides. But Washington State Climatologist Philip Mote challenges that conclusion. He says river flows in Southwest Washington were off the chart. But not rainfall totals – those he maintains averaged about 6 inches.
Phillip Mote: “And that’s not extreme for that area. Unlike the flow it was not way, way out in first place.”
Weyerhaeuser counters that rainfall totals in key higher-elevation locations were much, much higher and that’s what triggered the slides. To further bolster his case, the company’s Godbout showed the same hilltop in the Seattle Times photo, but from a different angle.

He said it showed two things. That the hill isn’t as steep as it looked in the newspaper. And off to the side there was another mudslide – but this one started in an area still covered in trees. Godbout’s point: slides don’t just happen on clear cuts.
Kevin Godbout: “The failures are found in many landforms with a variety of vegetation patterns. We do find them in clear cuts, we find them in standing timber. We found some of these slides on steep ground and we found them on rather gentle ground.”
Forestry experts at Oregon State University agree. They say the Northwest’s unstable geology, not logging, is the primary factor in three out of four mud or landslides.

Those comments came after a December slide shut down Highway 30 near Clatskanie. The question now is whether Northwest lawmakers and forest policymakers will feel the need to put any new restrictions on clear cut or steep slope logging.


The Seattle Times photo  

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