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Logging and Landslides

When Clearcuts Kill

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Note: In the wake of the killer landslides, on steep, heavily logged over terrain, along the Stillaguamish River in western Washington, we are reprinting a story on logging and landslides that Alex and I reported in the print edition of CounterPunch in 1996.  I vividly remember writing it on the phone with him as the waters of the Mattole crested over Conklin Creek Road, approaching Alex’s porch and he was desperately trying get all of the animals to high ground and move all of his books, including the Brittanica (1911 ed.) and OED from the bottom two shelves, before the floodwaters breached the house…..It was grim and a little scary, but also very funny. I think Alex was also trying to juggle three different deadlines that day. Just another thrilling day in a remarkable life…–JSC

When the first big winter rains hit Humboldt County in 1996, the Mattole River, which runs past Cockburn’s door, rose like a rocket. Within a couple of days, his house was cut off. To the west, the river was two feet over the road; 200 yards to the east, a landslide poured 30-feet of dirt over the road.

It’s the landslide that concerns us here. The steep slope above the road was logged in 1993. Many of us had protested that taking the trees would cause slides.

The California Department of Forestry said there was nothing it could do because the owner, a man from Oregon, had invoked emergency salvage regulations after the 1992 Petrolia earthquake. The only recourse would be to sue the owner after he had logged. The logging went ahead. The owner picked up his money, sold the property and returned to Oregon. The hillside has been sliding ever since. Last week, most of the hill-face came down. The bill for the county will probably add up to several hundred thousand dollars.

There’s a wider moral here, about private gain and public commons, about the essence of corporatism: Privatize the profits and socialize the losses. In 1912, Gifford Pinchot, first head of the Forest Service, engaged in a ritual while lobbying Congress to extend his agency’s domain. He’d pour water down a plane of glass held at a 45-degree angle. The water would sluice right off. “That’s rain running off a clear-cut,” Pinchot said. Then he’d hold a sponge against the glass and pour. He was making a simple point. Prudent forest management was as much about flood control and landslide control as about trees.

In Oregon on Nov. 18, 1996, a landslide in the coast range crashed down onto the home of Rick and Susan Moon, killing them and two friends who were visiting. The Moons’ two children managed to get clear before the house was crushed.

A couple of days later, Delsa Hammer was driving west on Highway 38 toward Reedsport when a landslide swept her car off the road and into the raging Umpqua River. Hammer drowned inside her car.

In the week of those Oregon rains, landslides killed eight people. The common thread was not the intensity of the storms. In all but one case (and the circumstances of this exception are cloudy), the landslides occurred in sites that had been clear-cut. Fly down the coastal range of Oregon and you’ll see millions of acres of mountainside stripped by industrial clear-cuts.

The landslide that killed the Moons and their friends originated in a clear-cut logged by the Champion International Corp. in 1987. When Champion announced its plans to log this site, Rick Moon wrote of his concerns about the effects to the Oregon Department of Forestry and urged them to halt the clear-cut.

Moon had good reason to be worried. State foresters and geologists had visited the site Champion planned to log. They found that parts of the mountainside were near vertical and noted that it posed extremely high risks of landslides if logged. The forestry department’s assessment that the site might be subject to a “mass wasting” landslide was never passed on to the Moons or other homeowners.

The landslide that killed Hammer also began in a clear-cut that environmental officials knew might trigger a slide. In fact, the Oregon Department of Transportation had tried to keep the area from being logged. “This was one of those places we just didn’t want touched,” says Bill Otis, an engineer with the department. But the Department of Forestry had jurisdiction over the site and gave the green light. The Oregon Department of Forestry claims that it was merely excessive rain that brought about the landslide deaths of Hammer and the others.

Department documents, which we acquired through a FOIA request, analyze 150 landslides along this stretch of Highway 38 in the past 10 months alone, noting that this is one of the most heavily logged areas in western Oregon. Moreover, a 1995 department handbook says, “timber harvests in sensitive areas have also been associated with an increased incidence of mass [soil] movement. Clear-cut harvest and/or slash burning may increase [soil] failure rates by two to 40 times over rates at undisturbed sites.”

And what of Champion International? Three weeks after its clear-cut led to the deaths of the Moons and their friends, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt handed Champion CEO Dick Olson the Corporate Stewardship Award, saying: “Champion International was among the first to provide practical solutions that allow us to enjoy a healthy environment while promoting economic growth. Wherever Champion has a presence, it has shown that we can use our lands while protecting our natural heritage.”

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.