Build-wherever-you-want leader perhaps dead in Washington landslide

Did militant unlimited property-rights firebrand die in Oso landslide?

Many speculate why there was so little action to prevent building below an obvious landslide area near Oso, Washington, where now 25 bodies have been recovered. A likely contributing factor has just emerged in the news.

Living in the path of the landslide was Thom Satterlee, 65, and Marlese, 61, his spouse. According to a story by NBC News, both are reported missing in the wake of the giant landslide where 25 bodies have been recovered so far. Satterlee was a strident leader on property rights and related issues according to local sources. The Satterlee home is labeled no. 5 in this New York Times photo.  It appears to be the home next to closest to the base of the slide.

According the the NBC story, Satterlee was “the leader of a group that sought to secede from Snohomish County [Washington] over land-rights issues, including whether government could restrict property owners from building in risky or environmentally sensitive areas like the one buried by the slide.” He also wanted to secede from Snohomish County to create a rural “Freedom County.” He was reported to have threatened local officials in the name of these issues. He changed his name to “Fnu Lnu” which stood for ““first name unknown; last name unknown,” and had a dramatic encounter with the local sheriff in the year 2000. In 2002 Sattlerlee was eventually convicted, given jail time and fine for”unauthorized practice of law in a jury trial.”

Later, the movement dissipated and Satterlee reportedly “mellowed.”

Restrictions on building for safety, esthetic, environmental, and property value purposes have a long history in the United States. In the last thirty or so years, they have run into increased ideological opposition from those who claim restrictions violate their property rights. Proponents of restrictions say that one person’s property rights should not be extended to where they substantially harm the property rights of others, or endanger various public values.

NBC News has many more details on this story. See






  1. Melody Scamman Avatar
    Melody Scamman

    This does tend to happen to self-important people who think they are smarter than the forces of nature. Once it is confirmed, perhaps he should be nominated for a Darwin Award?

  2. mikepost Avatar

    If you look at a wide view of the entire slide you can see an obvious clear cut in the forest above the slope. Too early to say that is a major factor but the obvious relationship between clear cuts and water saturation of the earth is food for thought.

  3. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    We need to see the science not the speculation. Were the warnings based on science?

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Ken Watts,

      Read just a few stories about slide and you will quickly see the answer. However, anyone with a little experience looking at landscapes can see this was and is an active slide location. Didn’t you see my partially suppressed profanity in my story — what I thought when I first looked at the location on Google Earth? The last slide was in 2006. It seems 5 new homes were allowed to be built between then (2006) and now.

    2. Yvette Avatar

      Ralph M. wrote an article with this line in the Seattle Times article the other day. It seems the geologists, and geomorphologists have been aware and warning about this site for quite some time.

    3. julie long gallegos Avatar
      julie long gallegos

      Ken Watts – agree. But I also would like to point out that science (research, analysis etc.) always begins with some sort of speculation.

      1. jdubya Avatar

        A hypothesis is not the same thing as speculation. I would speculate that the missing airplane was a victim of alien abduction but the cleanest testable hypothesis is that it was lost at sea.

  4. Kathleen Avatar

    Unfortunately, these militant and often ignorant “don’t tread on me” types are all over the rural West. They typically oppose any and all zoning (“don’t tell me what I can and can’t do on my own property”)and then proceed to tread on everyone else’s rights with their trash-infested property, their shooting and target practice in rural neighborhoods, their fireworks and explosives, their dirt bikes and ATVs, (fumes, noise), etc.

  5. snaildarter Avatar

    We have them in the south too.
    They seem to forget that the water and air they pollute tends to move across property lines to the unfortunste downstream and downwind neighbor.

  6. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Never any joy in someone’s untimely demise, but could quite possibly be nominated for a Darwin Award.

    1. Melody Scamman Avatar
      Melody Scamman

      Hi Immer, yup, I agree. And it is sad if his wife lost her life as likely she had no choice but to follow her husband’s wishes. A modern woman would probably leave a man who would risk both their lives and their children’s if they had any? But in my personal experience as a passive observer of the arrogant, ignorant mating rituals in honky tonk bars ( as a musician), I can pretty much say those types of men do not seek out modern women, the exception being the greed factor. One guy who drove the trash truck in my old neighborhood, said his life’s ambition was to marry a woman with big boobs, who owned a beer store…

  7. L.S. Avatar

    The huge problem with all of these people who say they don’t think anyone has the right to “protect them from themselves” by enforcing land use laws is this….all the rest of the public ends up paying the price for their decision. How may millions of public dollars will be spent dealing with this land slide and the law suits have not even begun. The difference between these people and all the other people who believe in supporting the common good is that they don’t want to take real responsibility for their decisions. It is ridiculous to live as though we are not all interconnected.

  8. alf Avatar

    In the NYT photo Ralph links in his post, and in the other photos I’ve seen of the slide area on TV, there’s an AWFULLY lot of red alder — probably more red alder than conifers.

    Red alder is a pioneering species, one of the first to colonize a disturbed site — clearcuts, road shoulders, landslides, etc. — and, as I recall, it has a shallow root system and is usually indicative of high water tables.

    The presence of red alder and its attendant high water table, the relatively steep ground, the obvious recent slide, and the fact that the river was actively undercutting the toe of the earlier slide should have raised multiple red flags to all but the most oblivious.

    Not knowing the site, I can only speculate, but I suspect all of the land around Oso is private ground, and that after it was logged, was never replanted with conifers, but just allowed to revegetate naturally.
    Had it been replanted, it most likely would have been with Douglas Fir, which has a tap root, and thus might have helped anchor the slope.

    I’m almost ashamed to say that I have little sympathy for those affected, given how obvious the hazard was.

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    So who is ultimately responsible – a logging company for not replanting after clear cutting? We can see what happens when companies ‘regulate’ their own activities. This is absolutely shameful.

  10. Salle Avatar

    Well here’s an interesting POV/OPED from someone who has a grip on the reality of this incident (from an author I respect):

    A Mudslide, Foretold

    DON’T tell me, please, that nobody saw one of the deadliest landslides in American history coming. Say a prayer or send a donation for a community buried under a mountain of mud along a great river in Washington State, the Stillaguamish. Praise the emergency workers still trying to find a pulse of life in a disaster that left 25 people dead and 90 missing.

    But enough with the denial, the willful ignorance of cause and effect, the shock that one of the prettiest valleys on the planet could turn in a flash from quiet respite in the foothills of the North Cascades to a gravelly graveyard.

    “This was a completely unforeseen slide,” said John Pennington, the emergency manager of Snohomish County. “It was considered very safe.” He said this on Monday, two days after the equivalent of three million dump truck loads of wet earth heaved down on the river near the tiny town of Oso. Unforeseen — except for 60 years’ worth of warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure.

    (emphasis added)

  11. Mal Adapted Avatar
    Mal Adapted

    One has to feel sorrow for the victims of the slide, and sympathy for the grief their loved ones are feeling. Legal responsibility may be ambiguous, but no-one can deny that the victims ultimately paid the cost.

    We may feel anger at the selfishness of people like Satterlee, while disagreeing on just what government’s proper role is in preventing such tragedies. Yet whether or not any authorities are liable for allowing those houses to be built, and whether or not residents were warned about the hazard: how many TWN readers had been looking for a rural retreat, would you have bought or built a house in the path of that slide?

    After Ralph’s previous post about the slide, commenter A.C. said:

    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.

    I’m baffled by his remark. Neighborhood residents he encountered might have avoided calling it “Slide Hill”, but venturing to the end of Steelhead Drive E. would have given him a clear view across the river. My question to the others here: would you have missed the conspicuous danger signs? Even without the scar left by the 2006 slide, would the topography, the material that bluff is made of, the way the river eats at its foot, not have raised any flags?

    A.C. says he researched the properties on-line. Yet according to news reports, warnings about the hazards there “go back decades”. Snohomish Co. published an updated map of Landslide Hazard Areas in May 2010, showing Oso in a red zone. It would at least have been in preparation when A.C. was looking to buy property. Data for the map came from the USGS and the WA DNR. My question for the rest of you: was there really no way of knowing? Assuming the data weren’t deliberately and carefully made unavailable to the public, do you think due diligence could have failed to find it?

    Lastly: I hope A.C. picked right too. But would any of you agree to buy property – signed a contract, written a check – without authoritative information about the hazards?

    1. Mal Adapted Avatar
      Mal Adapted

      how many TWN readers had been looking for a rural retreat, would you have bought or built a house in the path of that slide?

      Meant to say “how many TWN readers, looking for a rural retreat, would have bought or built a house in the path of that slide?

  12. Joe Avatar

    The first version of this article said “Did militant unlimited property-rights firebrand eat mud.” Glad to see that someone had the sense to change this offensive choice of words.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I wrote it, and then decided I should change it. The original wording I thought made the TWN to not appear journalistic.

  13. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Mal Adapted,
    Ironically yes, I’ve been in that exact scenario, but eventually bought a house that was on a plateau instead of one on a slope (sandstone cap on limestone vs. limestone base)…house was a quarter mile from the potential mudslide. And to make the situation worse, years later I was one of the first to see evidence of a pending mudslide and brought it to the attention of the city (and the press). Some neighbors were very greatful, some bitched about home values declining, etc. I do a lot of caving and know some geology, so I was glad it came in handy. Otherwise, its caveat emptor, unless someone says something before you close on a house.

  14. Leslie Avatar

    Echoes of ‘agenda 21’ rallying cry. I hear it around here quite a lot.

  15. Raul Avatar

    So are you claiming that this persons failed attempt to secede to a new county over land rights use somehow caused state regulators to ignore their own regulations and allow him to build in a slide area? Or is it possible that if he was allowed to build on another part of his property that was forbidden by the state, he might not be missing? Or is this all just speculation that attempts to proselytize against people actually wanting to have control over their own things (the horror.)

  16. Raul Avatar

    Also, just a small factual error. Fnu Lnu was actually a former FBI agent named Robert Bender. It was not Saterlee.

  17. L.S. Avatar

    The problem with people is this…people state that they want to have control over their own “things” as you call it but the reality is this…when things go wrong, they don’t really want to accept responsibility for that decision. Harsh though this will sound to you, that means dealing with your own catastrophes, especially financially. That, of course, never really happens. There lies the difference between them and me… I am want to live in a society that understands our connections to each other and the MUTUAL responsibility that entails… i.e. I would gladly help provide the public dollars that are being spent to find survivors or the people who have lost their lives. I would also, support land use laws that protect both the owners and the people around them. The point is YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS!!


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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