Logging one of the causes of giant Oso, WA mudslide

Warning after warning was given-

Although first reports from local officials after the lethal mud slide were basically, “we had no idea, a bolt from the blue, this came out of nowhere, an Act of God,” etc., many warnings were given over the years from experts, agencies and the state. There were actions to stop and limit the logging on the slope above the slide. However, even the large preliminary slide in 2006 (clearly evident on Google Earth) did not stop all the logging.

My first impression after looking at Google Earth(GE) a day after the slide was “J . . . Fk. . .” referring to the 2006 slide and all the houses and other structures right below it. Many of them looked fairly new. Some looked brand new. Note that the imagery on GE is very recent — mid-2013.

Many factors came together to cause the slide exactly when it happened — twice the normal rain, a small earthquake, the river washing away at the toe of the unstable area, and logging. However, the slide appears to have been inevitable and absolutely not at some time in the distant future.

The general slide area probably slid, or certainly creeped, before the area was inhabited with ancient trees holding the slope. However, multiple instances of logging increased the ability of water to infiltrate down deep and reduced the depth of the roots that would hold the glacial material of the slope in place. In other words, small regenerated conifers or alder, don’t have the holding power of giant Douglas fir and other conifers of Western Washington.

The Seattle Times has a detailed article on the history of logging on and near the slide and efforts to warn and stop or modify the logging.

One factor, powerful, but well back in the chain of causes was likely the ideology that the government at all levels should stay out. A person, company, or whatever should be able to do anything they want with their property.  This is what we might call “dying for the sake of ideology,” or perhaps better making others die for the sake of your ideology.


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  1. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Thanks, Ralph, for this post.

    There is a lead in the Seattle article that goes back to the flooding of December 2007.
    http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2008048848_logging13m.html
    The streams in western Oregon were also adversely affected by this storm.

    Much of the Coast Range is private land and the area near Dallas had been liquidated of most of its timber by two large corporations in the prior few years. There have been many landslides in the steep drainages and deposition in the flood plains below especially in 1996 and 2007. Those companies have since moved on to other areas. The lumber company owned town of Valsetz was removed in 1984 after the old growth trees had been harvested. There is a remnant 50 acre preserve managed by the Bureau of Land Management called the Valley of the Giants that is well worth a visit.

    1. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      Barb, I worked in the coast range from Hwy #22 south past Alsea and the Valley of the Giants has the largest and oldest trees in the central coast area. There is really only one timber company in this area that practices “sound forestry” and that is Starker Forests in Philomath. The rest are companies like the ones you referred to. If people flew over this area they would be dismayed at the clearcutting being done. The only trees left in clearcuts are typically located in narrow stream buffers (which typically blowdown) or on the edges.

  2. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Working for the BLM in western Oregon, most slides I witnessed were caused by roads with logging coming in a far second. State agencies who enforce state forest practice acts rarely scrutinize private operations. I’m not sure if some of their operating costs are derived from timber severance taxes, but private land owners basically do what they want.

    Small debris flows which occur naturally provide small and large wood to larger streams along with gravels and fine sediments that provide spawning habitat. This is the largest land slide I have ever seen and hopefully will make the DNR more proactive in making sure this does not happen again. It was preventable!

    1. Doc Avatar
      Doc

      “Roads” that went to “what?”

      1. Jay Allender Avatar
        Jay Allender

        Roads that went to logging. The corporation (timber) that obviously caused the Oso landslide should be liquidated to pay in some way for the damage they caused. But how do you pay for, what, 60++? lives, the destruction of a “timber town”, destruction of miles of state highway?

        Will this disaster at the hands and saws of a corporation obsessed with cutting every tree they can be written-off as a…”whoops”?

  3. alf Avatar
    alf

    “One factor, powerful, but well back in the chain of causes was likely the ideology that the government at all levels should stay out. A person, company, or whatever should be able to do anything they want with their property.”

    Let’s not forget that virtually all city and county elected officials (small town and rural county, anyway) constantly whine about how they’re starved for tax money, and their tax base is too small, etc., etc. So in addition to almost all those officials being subscribers to the philosophies Ralph described above, they’ll approve just about any development, no matter how badly thought out or detrimental, in their money-lust. The best and most obvious example probably is the approval of rural subdivisions and other “development” in the wildland-exurban interface.

    I think it has been pretty well documented that in terms of net revenue to the political jurisdiction, those developments are almost always money losers.

    1. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      One way to generate more revenue for rural counties is to limit maximum acreages for homesites. Instead of one residence on 20 acres, have 20 residences on 20 acres. I doubt this will disuade people from purchasing homesites since one acre still provides some privacy and most of the time they don’t want more than one acre anyway.

      Look at Idaho and you will see more rural sprawl versus Wyoming which is more restrictive. This leaves more of the landscape for wildlife movement and still provides some smart development.

      1. WM Avatar
        WM

        Gary,

        Great idea, except that most rural residences of low density use individual wells and septic tanks. Higher density makes that much tougher, and you don’t really want somebody else’s septic tank filter field tainting your drinking water when you draw down your well. And, the mid-density 1 unit/acre is not really dense enough for central sewer and water service, where trenching is required for water and sewer piping. And, of course, you need special districts to create, fund and run these little higher density rural development utilities. They often run into financial problems, don’t properly size the systems based on growth that does or doesn’t occur affecting tap fees, or can’t find the folks to run the water treatment (health standards for disinfection) or waste treatment plants (state permits for NPDES discharges to streams). The state regulators of these enterprises hate them, because of all the problems they cause, and they are a substantial source of water pollution from wastewater, runoff and lawn fertilizing, if anywhere near a surface stream or lake, and sometimes they screw up the groundwater, too.

        1. Gary Humbard Avatar
          Gary Humbard

          WM, Although there is no perfect solution to zoning, one example is the community of Kelly, Wyoming where most people own 1/3 acre lots that are connected to a community water and sewer system. The size provides enough privacy, yet a feeling of community for most folks while protecting land for wildlife. Its a better option than 10 to 20 acre lots that can negatively affect wildlife movement and bring no sense of community.

          1. WM Avatar
            WM

            Gary,

            I agree concentration works to some degree where the geography allows, and either people share the same development concept values, or are forced to look at alternative configurations by local county government. Even looked Kelly, WY up on Google Earth. It is just north of Jackson, on the Gros Ventre. Are those circular structures on the north side of town yurts? The concentrated small lot growth model has been out there for something like forty years, formally in the idea of a PUD (planned unit development)where structures are concentrated and common areas left to open space to maintain wildlife habitat or visual attributes.

            A landscape architect by the name of Ian McHarg (U Penn) wrote a book called Design with Nature. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/12/arts/12MCHA.html

            He advocated using graphic overlay maps of natural landscape features/hazards (slope, problem soil types, geologic hazards, vegetation and wildlife corridors and critical winter range) to identify areas where development should not occur. This concept was typically applied at the county level where mapping was done of sensitive areas to avoid development where it had the worst impacts. Ideas like PUD’s were advocated, as well (for the reasons stated above). It was applied mostly at the time, to rapidly growing ski area communities like Aspen, Vail, Steamboat, maybe even Jackson at one point. Some of the concept has now been incorporated into county planning efforts across the West, but in many places not really considered seriously.

            There are always hold out local governments, and still are today in ID, Eastern WA, and even some of the rural counties like parts of Snohomish County (its only 50 miles north of Seattle), where this massive Oso slide occuured. This community should never have been built here, even without the added problems from the logging.

            By the way, your one example of Kelly, all you need to do is go south and west a ways to the Starr Valley/Afton area and see all the development in the aspen groves on either side of the valley, on those larger lots, where much protective winter range cover is now houses, garages, driveways and access roads. So, the moose and deer (or occasional bear) hang out on the leeward and warmer west and south sides of these structures. Of course some of the locals piss and moan about the dangerous wildlife harassing their dogs (moose especially). And the valley bottom is all hay and alfalfa for the cows and recreational horses, or a place to run the snow machine in winter.

    1. Harley Avatar
      Harley

      I didn’t realize there was also a slight earthquake on March 10th, just behind the slide site.

    2. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Yes. I saw a little child on the news half dressed and suffering from hyperthermia, his relatives unaccounted for. 🙁

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        sorry, hypothermia.

    3. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Very sad but there had been numerous reports over the years telling of the areas instability and of the inevitability of a slide in that area. Why are building permits being issued for dwellings in a flood plain, let alone below an unstable slope while the river’s meander continues to undercut the toe?

      1. Glenn Jaeger Avatar
        Glenn Jaeger

        Good question, Barb. Probably for the same reason people build on flood plains, barrier islands, cliff edges, etc. Our human time frame is too short to relate to natural processes that unfold over thousands and millions of years. Nothing’s changed over my lifetime, so everything must be stable and will never change, right? Wrong! And there’s no need to blame everything on human impact either – the earth is constantly changing. Erosion may happen slowly most of the time, but it never stops and unfortunately sometimes the effects are sudden and catastrophic.

  4. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
    Larry Zuckerman

    take a listen to On-Point – the first hour is real interesting as Tom interviews geologists in the know re: the area, its geology, and the slide.

    http://onpoint.wbur.org/

    1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar
      Larry Zuckerman

      sounds like not only logging and roads and development in risky areas; also climate change with changes in amounts, types, and timing of precipitation. So… thawing and raining occurring during heavy precipt instead of earlier, colder snow way ahead of spring thaw.

      1. Glenn Jaeger Avatar
        Glenn Jaeger

        Wow – I posted a comment that there was no need to blame climate change, that rainfall and erosion are natural processes that have been happening throughout the history of the planet. Guess what? It got removed. Guess you’ve got to agree with the ‘party line’ in order to post – dissenting views will not be tolerated!

        1. Mal Adapted Avatar
          Mal Adapted

          Glenn,

          I saw your comment about no need to blame climate change. AFAICT, you can post any nonsense you want here without fear of being removed for failure to agree with some imaginary party line. Paranoid much?

  5. JB Avatar
    JB

    “One factor, powerful, but well back in the chain of causes was likely the ideology that the government at all levels should stay out.”

    This mentality is a real barrier for conservation today. The Tea Party line is all government is bad (excepting, of course, the military, which is sacrosanct). So federal lands are bad, because they erode the tax base; regulation is bad, because it impedes progress; and incentives for conservation is bad because it is a ‘government give-away’. The apparent answer is that (as with indians), the only good government is dead government. This approach, of course, is what led to the dust bowl, the death of Lake Erie, burning of Cuyahoga River, the extermination of species, deaths from air pollution, etc.,–the very invents that spawned these approaches. Approaches that have proved largely successful for dealing with our inability to curb our own lust for more.

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      JB,

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        Oooops!

        JB,

        Well said +1

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      JB, and all,

      Not schadenfreude, but at least, told you so, read this story!

      Mudslide Victim Wanted Right to Live Anywhere He Wanted” NBC News

  6. Anita Chittenden Avatar
    Anita Chittenden

    I don’t know if anyone remembers the mudslide that happen in 1996 in Stafford CA. a very small community south of Scotia CA where Pacific Lumber Co. is located in Humboldt County. That mudslide took out 7 homes and was caused due to PL doing clearcuts right above the town.

  7. A.C. Avatar
    A.C.

    I stumbled across this site while reading about the slide. We live about 10-15 miles from the slide, and in 2010 when we bought our property we looked at 2 homes in the Oso area. (One of those is now partially flooded; the other is buried in mud.)I’m reasonably intelligent so knew to stay off a flood plain, not buy in the potential path of a future forest fire, etc. But when we looked at those 2 properties there was no disclosure of slide risk. We walked the properties and we couldn’t see it from the ground. I researched every property as best I could on-line, but as a buyer you have no way of knowing. We ended up not buying in Oso, but now I’m looking at our current property wondering what we don’t know… Sure hope we picked right.

    Regarding comments on concentrated housing: You can’t blame government for people like us that want to live on a small acreage. Gary suggests people like us ought to enjoy a sense of community on 1 acre or 1/3 acre. I don’t want a sense of community (to me that translates to noisy, nosy, and/or annoying neighbors.) I spent my life living too close to other people; now I’m enjoying as much solitude as we can afford (5 acres) for a few years and don’t feel particularly guilty about it. We try to live responsibly (i.e. organic, not use plastics, pesticides, etc.) but when you have one american family glorified on tv that could fill Gary’s entire 20 acre housing tract (19 kids and counting) I just don’t feel very motivated to change our lifestyle.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      A.C.,

      Thank you for your comment. I was most interested in your recollection that you could not see the slide just across the river when you looked at the property there — the property you ended up not buying.

      I always go right to Google Earth, but I don’t expect everyone can or should, and that is why it is important to have rules and regulations for purchase of real property so that those who want to purchase will know of hazards. The county, state, or whatever should be able to impose rules that prevent or regulate building in hazardous areas, and provide people with accurate information about such things.

      1. bret Avatar
        bret

        preliminary report on the Oso mud slide

        http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2014/1065/pdf/ofr2014-1065.pdf

  8. TC Avatar
    TC

    I live in Snohomish County near Oso and I drive that stretch of Hwy 530 every day. The slope that gave way hasn’t been logged in decades. We’re talking about 2nd growth trees 3 and 4 feet in diameter and 75 to 100 feet tall. The problem is that the soil in the Pacific Northwest is Glacial Till, a loose mix of sand, detrious, and gravel. In the Oso area this Mixture sits on top of a layer of clay. Slides in WA state are common, very common, it’s just that this one was so devastating. All the warnings about possible slides in this area were based from geological surveys and the effects on wildlife from the 80’s and 90’s. These warnings are on record and
    , yes, they were ignored. On a sesperate note, This entire week, as I drove my bus to Oso(Darrington, before the slide) I have watched the search teams gather at the Oso Fire dept and the Oso store before they start their work. These people are the REAL HEROES in this world. May they stay safe and strong in the weeks to come.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      TC,

      They are heroes, and brave too because that hill slope could still be unstable. It has been raining some more. I think it could slide yet again.

  9. Monty Avatar
    Monty

    T.C. you hit the nail on the head. It would be nice to know the vegetative history of the slide area, like what was the age of the forest prior to the 2nd growth? Unstable ground by definition is unstable and given the “perfect storm” will slide. When one reviews the condition of the world, the only conclusion that I reach is that the human species is incapable of long range planning!

  10. Jil Avatar
    Jil

    Old-growth trees with their deep roots anchor the soil, and their broad leaves draw moisture from the soil, releasing it back to the atmosphere though the process of transpiration.

  11. wildninja Avatar

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out legally. In the meantime, there are MANY ways to help the people and animals affected by the slide. I have some posted on my site at http://wildninjablog.com/2014/03/25/oso-aid/. Thank you!

  12. Jon Chambers Avatar
    Jon Chambers

    I watched my father-in-law being interviewed by NBC Nightly News with Brian Willams this weekend, which will air tonight most likely. He has worked the land as a logger around Darrington all his life and understands the make up and impacts on this land more-so than most geologists. His knowledge of the area and its history is very impressive to say the least.

    This particular ridge has a long history of slides, dating back to before it was ever logged. Both the Stilly and Sauk are wild and winding rivers with very little rock on either side to stop them from carving through the valley at will. Sure man has an impact on the area, but mother nature has a far greater one. Believe it or not, clear cutting on a plateau above a potential slide area has less of an effect on that potential than you would think, especially one of this magnitude. Sure someone logging above it was a factor, but a minimal very one. This hill was coming down eventually wether there were trees there or not . The river undercutting, the rain, gravity, wind, beavers damning up streams all have a greater impact on a hill made up of sand, clay and gravel.

    Could this have been prevented? Possibly but after seeing the devastation first hand, I personally doubt it. This is too massive to prevent. Besides, very little can be done to the path of these rivers because of the laws protecting the fish that spawn in them.

    My father-in-law was leading the crew that had the option to log this particular plateau back in 1990. They left a million dollars worth of timber on that hill because the liability of logging it was too great. They knew the potential hazard back then and didn’t want to risk being a factor in a major event like the one we just witnessed. He can say in good conscience as you will see tonight on NBC tonight “I feel good knowing that everywhere I have logged is still growing trees.”

    Take a look around you, because the place you call home is made up of the material harvested by those you’re pointing an presumptuous finger at. Logging is a dangerous industry, and amazingly humble conservationist like my father-in-law risk and even lose their lives providing you with material for our homes. Sure there are loggers that aren’t as ethical about their practice as they should be, but you shouldn’t be lumping all of them into your generalized view of something you know very little about.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Jon Chambers,

      Thank you for your comment. Much of what you say I agree with. The article is not some broadside against timber harvest, but against doing it on an obvious slide zone. It is very good to learn that you father-in-law had the wisdom to leave the slope alone. It is obvious that some local people had a much better feel for the stability and geology of the locale than the others.

      A number of factors came together to cause the slide. The final cause was the heavy and lengthy rain. It would not have slid without the rain, and given enough rain it would have slid even with the original forest on it, but the logging made it easier to have rainwater infiltrate into the soil and give way.

      1. Sam Avatar
        Sam

        On the other hand, if we want natural fires to burn at natural rates,then this area at one time in history might have been treeless for at least 10 years or so due to large scale fires, this landslide might have been inevitable with or without logging.

    2. Sam Avatar
      Sam

      To much of our timber is harvested and destined to go to foreign countries, because our economy does not need all the harvested trees. Global trade is bad for our natural resources and our people.

  13. Mary Avatar
    Mary

    Because someone always has to be at fault, right? Accidents never happen….
    There are a bazillion sites marked as slide-prone, most of which won’t slip in many, many lifetimes. It’s silly to act as though warnings were ignored. This was an unpredictable event, so focus on helping the affected families and quit with the finger-pointing already!

    1. rork Avatar
      rork

      So we should learn nothing?
      That’s not the attitude I take about tornadoes anymore, having been in one. Nor is it how I think about the costs of living on the coasts, like New Orleans.

  14. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Mary,

    I am horrified by the damage and the number of people who lost their lives, and contrary to what you might think, no one in particular is being blamed. However, that this hillside would give way was predictable given the mute testimony of the slide of 2006 already on the ground and the history of many slides there in the past. It was predictable, but of course not the exact time. This is no different than someone building next to a river than is known to flood on the average of, let’s say, every 15 years. That person would not know what year the river would flood, but if it flooded after 5 years or 30 years, no one would be surprised.

    There are many slide zones, as you say, but there are not many that so many people have homes or other buildings below.

    Every year many hundreds of people lose their lives from landslides onto their homes, but most are not in America because we have been lucky and perhaps smarter here.

    Please do not let these folks’ lives be lost in vain. There is a lesson.

    It is claimed that people do not learn from natural disasters. Perhaps, but not if I can help it.

    No doubt there are many other slide zones in the Cascade Mountains, and there should be a redoubling of efforts to identify them, warn people, and prohibit building on them

  15. Nancy Avatar
    Nancy

    “No one has pushed it, and it hasn’t been a priority,” said Scott Burns, a geology professor at Portland State University. “It’s costly to monitor it, and we don’t want to pay for it.”

    http://www.newsdaily.com/article/697ede6b4661df50f75d7f110f159c9d/no-national-system-to-track-landslide-hazards

  16. Jay Allender Avatar
    Jay Allender

    More people need to read the novel, “Priest Lake Cathedral”.

    1. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Sounds like an interesting book. The asbestos forest – the Kaniksu – so called because of the rain which produced those beautiful cedar groves I enjoyed 60 years ago.

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