The Floods of Forgetfulness
From February 4 through February 10 of 1996 an embedded low-pressure system sat over the Pacific Northwest, drawing warm waves of rain from the eastern Pacific. Coastal Oregon was drenched with more than 23 inches of rain. Portland was lashed with 12 inches and the Cascades to the east was hit with more than 18 inches Those mountains already had about a foot of new snow at the one-thousand foot level, with a snowpack of more than 120 inches at timberline.
The rains were some of the heaviest in thirty years. At the top of the seawall in Portland the chocolate-colored Willamette River crested at 29 feet. Further upstream at Oregon City, where the river channel is much narrower, the river crested at 44 feet, 22 feet over flood stage, inundating much of the lower reaches of the town.
Flooding of Oregon City, Oregon, 1996. Photo: NOAA.
The Wilson River, plunging out of Oregon’s Coast Range, met a high tide at Tillamook Bay and put the entire town of Tillamook under eight feet of water. Tillamook is dairy country. More than 1500 dairy cows were drowned or got trapped in the mud and starved. The Santiam River, which drains off the western flanks of Mt. Jefferson in the Cascades, reached record heights. Five thousand people had to be evacuated from the North Fork of the Santiam River canyon for fear the Detroit dam would fail.
The Columbia River, long believed to have been tamed behind mega-dams such as Bonneville and McNary, breached its banks and dozens of dikes, inflicting major damage in the river towns of Washougal, Vancouver, St. Helens, Kalama and Astoria.
In Washington state, the Lewis River, which slides off the south face of Mt. St. Helens, ran higher than it did following the volcanic eruption in 1980s and flooded the town of Woodland, prompting a consoling visit from President Clinton.
With the rains and the floods came an unprecedented number of landslides, shredding more than 800 roads in Washington and Oregon, including several Interstate highways. I-84 in the Columbia Gorge east of Portland vanished under 10 feet of rock and mud.
The damage estimates ranged anywhere from $2 to $3 billion.
The local press coverage was prodigious: 24-hour-a-day news bulletins; helicopter footage; intrepid reporters out in their Gore-tex storm gear. The newspapers ran special supplements over the following two weeks.
In all those thousands of stories, only one mention any possible connection between logging and floods. The closest the Portland Oregonian came was an enigmatic story—getting almost everything ass-backwards—in which the reporter discussed the damage the rain had done to the forests, with possible inhibitions on hiking the next summer.
Down in Eugene, in the very heart of Oregon’s timber country, the Register-Guard did indeed run an article discussing the relationship of recent clearcuts to the floods. But most of the space was taken up with quotes from a Weyerhaeuser flack called Paul Barnum, who insisted: “It’s preposterous to say that clearcutting contributes to flooding. And there’s no definitive proof that clearcutting contributes to landslides. Flooding is caused by too much water for the earth to absorb.”
On that last point, Barnum is right, thereby contradicting everything else he said prior to that. Old-growth forests absorb about ten times as much water as the land does after the tree have been clearcut. This is a fact that has been known for a hundred years, since the very creation of the national forest system.
The silence in the press on the connection between industrial logging and floods stands in marked contrast to coverage back in the last big flood year of 1964, and indeed shows us how cowed or ignorant the reporters and their editors have become. In 1964 floods engulfed the whole of the Pacific Northwest coast from the Eel River in northern California to the Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula. Then the connection was made very straightforwardly between such flooding and the post-war logging boom that was still in its final frenzy on corporate-owned lands.
After the 1964 flood in the Willamette Valley, which drains the Cascades and Coast Range from Eugene to Portland, came the construction of 32 dams, mainly erected by the US Army Corps of Engineers. This orgy of dam construction was a replay of a debate that attended the birth of the national forests.
Between 1892 and 1908, Gifford Pinchot—the first chief of the Forest Service—fought a series of battles with opponents determined to destroy any rationale for publicly-owned forests and for any federal intervention in the management of private lands. Joe Cannon, the imperious Speaker of the House, proclaimed that he would not allocate “one damn cent for scenery.” Cannon and his allies were eager to open up federally-owned lands in the West for private exploitation. In the East, Cannon and his cronies wanted to keep the Feds out altogether.
Pinchot riposted that waterways lay within the federal government’s constitutional purview and since waterways flooded from time to time, it was government’s function to prevent such calamities and hence in the government’s interest to conserve and create forests. At congressional hearings, Pinchot would hold up a photograph of a clearcut hillside and pour a pitcher of water over the photo. The water would naturally run off at once. Then he would hold up a sponge, or what he called a “slopping blotter,” and pour water over that, followed by a lecture on the absorptive capacity of trees. Forests, Pinchot concluded, prevent flooding.
After devastating floods in the heavily logged-over Ohio and Tennessee river valleys in the early 1900s, Pinchot’s argument looked pretty persuasive to Midwesterners and he made great headway. The big showdown came in the form of a stand-off between Pinchot and Hiram Chittenden, head of the Army Corps of Engineers. In those days, the Army Corps was in poor shape, partly from a series of financial scandals and partly from the fierce attacks the Corps had made against the Panama Canal. Chittenden was trying to restore stature and morale to the agency by arguing vigorously that in the end the only way to manage hectic Nature was to build dams: thousands of them.
In the short term, Pinchot got the better of Chittendom. He managed to win passage of the Weeks Act of 1911, which authorized the federal government to buy forest land for the purpose of flood control. Though Pinchot—in striking contrast to his rival John Muir—saw forests as zones for rationalized exploitation (ie, the conservation ethic that Teddy Roosevelt expropriated), he did make protection of water quality and flood control centerpieces of his forest management practices. In consequence, Pinchot didn’t last very long. He was booted from his post by President William Howard Taft when he attacked Richard Ballinger, the notoriously corrupt Secretary of the Interior who wanted to give away the oil and coal rights across most of Alaska for corporate plunder.
After Pinchot’s outster, the Chittenden approach gained congressional traction and finally prevailed. Pinchot’s hope that private forests could be regulated by the feds was swiftly extinguished. These corporate lands were savagely clearcut, amid great environmental devastation, over the next half century. The Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation began a dam-building race that caused further environmental ruin and doomed Glen Canyon and the salmon of the Columbia River basin.
By the early 1970s, even the Forest Service had joined in the rout of Pinchot’s ideals. Pinchot favored the selective logging forests, where trees are cut in small groups, leaving the canopy of the forest itself largely in tact. But the Forest Service radically shifted from selective cutting to clearcutting in the 1960s, claiming that clearcuts increased water yield for the benefit of all, especially in the arid interior West.
As those dams were going up, the forests were coming down. Between 1964 and 1996, 13 million acres of public forests were clearcut in the Pacific Northwest alone. Along with the clearcuts, the Forest Service and the timber companies constructed more than 180,000 miles of logging roads (2.5 times as much as the interstate system begun in the 1950s). The end result was the predicament faced by Oregon at the start of February in 1996. In the Mapleton Ranger District of the Siuslaw Forest, in the Coast Range west of Eugene, there were 183 landslides caused by the storm. All but three of them occurred in clearcut terrain or on logging roads.
Logging road blow out, Willamette National Forest, 1996. Photo: Forest Service.
In unlogged watersheds, such as Opal Creek in the Cascades, the water ran swift and high, but stayed clear and held within its banks. The snowpack on clearcut slopes melted away quickly under the warm rains of the storm. But in the old-growth forests, the snow remained deep, sheltered by 200-foot-tall trees.
Billions of dollars were poured into flood control projects in the past forty years so that hundreds of millions more could be spent logging off national forest land and building logging roads. The rainstorms that spawned the floods of 1996 were nowhere near as protracted and fierce as the 1964 storms, but the damage was much greater. The media circled the disaster without even a hint of the historical knowledge to ask the basic questions or look for the originating causes.
Someone should have sued the timber companies to get those questions asked in court. With all the talk about “property rights” and “compensation” and “takings,” the timber lords should have been made to pony up a hefty percentage of that $3 or $4 billion in damages.
But they never were. So now, when a much less potent storm pummeled western Washington, saturating heavily-logged terrain in the Stillaguamish valley, a steep cliff collapses, killing dozens of people. History repeats itself and the old questions linger, still unasked.
Stillaquamish landslide. Photo: USGS.
This essay is adapted from a chapter in Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.