Landslide in Oso, Washington -- Don't Blame Nature and Acts of God for Reckless Logging

A dog works with searchers at the scene of a deadly mudslide Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Besides the more than tw
A dog works with searchers at the scene of a deadly mudslide Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Besides the more than two dozen bodies already found, many more people could be buried in the debris pile left from the mudslide one week ago. Ninety people are listed as missing. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, Pool)

The 300-acre landslide in Oso, Washington, which killed at least 30 people and destroyed the local community on March 22, 2014, reveals a consequence of a relatively unregulated and unseen industry: logging. Logging was not the sole cause of the disaster -- March was the wettest on record, a condition possibly exacerbated by climate change, and the geology of the area features soft soils -- but logging apparently played a major role.

The media often do not investigate the reasons behind an event such as the landslide, attributing to "Mother Nature" or "Acts of God" disasters that were actually manmade. For example, Time magazine called the Oso landslide a "natural disaster" without mentioning the likely influences of logging and climate change.

The plateau above the hillside that gave way has been logged for almost a century, and the hillside has a history of landslides dating back more than 60 years. For more than 25 years, as the slope became more unstable, scientists challenged the timber cutting and warned of possible calamity. Yet the state continued to allow logging on the plateau. A "clear-cut" is an area of land in which all the trees have been cut down. One suspected trigger of the Oso landslide is a clear-cut, undertaken 9 years ago, that apparently encroached into a restricted area and is only now being investigated.

The landslide, which occurred near the banks of the Stillaguamish River, was not only predictable; it was also predicted. New York Times reporter Timothy Egan recounts touring the headwaters of the Stillaguamish 25 years ago with Pat Stevenson, a biologist with the local Stillaguamish tribe: "Stevenson pointed uphill, to bare, saturated earth that was melting, like candle wax, into the main mudslide. Not long ago, this had been a thick forest of old growth timber. But after it was excessively logged, every standing tree removed, there was nothing to hold the land in place during heavy rains. A federal survey determined that nearly 50 percent of the entire basin above Deer Creek had been logged over a 30-year period. It didn't take a degree in forestry to see how one event led to the other." Forest root systems hold the soil in place, and old-growth forests absorb about ten times as much water as clear-cut land.

Logging usually occurs far from the public eye. Most people remain unaware of the devastation wrought by typical modern logging practices, which rely on large machines and few workers to clear-cut the land. Near public roadways, uncut "beauty strips" of forest give passing motorists the illusion of unspoiled landscapes. Satellite images, however, often provide a very different, bird's-eye view of shorn forests.

Logging plans are not widely publicized. In my home state of Massachusetts, logging plans are filed with the town's conservation commission, which is often a group of volunteers. Even in the small town in which I live, and where I am relatively plugged-in to the goings-on, I was taken by surprise by the sound of logging machines near my house several years ago.

When people complain about rapacious logging, the toilet paper argument is invariably used to shut them up. The fact that we all use toilet paper is supposed to provide a carte blanche for loggers to do whatever they want to the forest. Yes, we all use wood, but many of the trees that are cut are wasted, often used to fuel biomass power plants, which have disastrous environmental impacts, or to create single-use pallets, junk mail and excess packaging. Much wood and paper ends up in a landfill or incinerator instead of being recycled or reused.

Logging proponents trivialize the damage from logging, arguing that although the land initially looks ravaged, the trees will grow back. They neglect to mention that this process takes decades and that invasive species may be what grow back. Forester Gordon Robinson writes, "If logging looks bad, it is bad. If a forest appears to be mismanaged, it is mismanaged."

A system of belief that defies science and justifies irresponsible logging has become entrenched in our government agencies and universities (particularly, in university forestry departments largely funded by the logging industry). One popular excuse for logging is to claim that the trees are diseased and need to be cut down for the good of the forest. Another popular excuse is that trees should be cut down to help wildlife. Loggers escape the burden of proving such claims. Government agencies often green-light logging without adequate environmental impact analysis or protection of vital resources. Rather, the burden of proof that logging may be damaging unfairly falls on unpaid citizens.

In 2006 and 2007, a group of citizens in Massachusetts applied modern science -- bringing in experts as needed -- to refute one unsupported excuse after another attempting to justify logging in Robinson State Park. The would-be loggers floated out 22 reasons to log the land, and the citizens shot down each one. The state ultimately denied the timber company a permit; not one reason to log could be found that had any legs. Today, Robinson State Park is safe from logging and proves that intense public pressure can overcome even entrenched pro-logging bureaucracies.

Logging is treated as a presumptive right, even on public land. For example, in Washington, if a permit application to log is not reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) within 30 days, it is automatically approved. And not only is enforcement of logging regulations lax, but the regulations themselves are inadequate.

Forestry seems to operate in the fantasy world of the 1950s, before the advent of modern environmental regulations. Paul Kennard, a geomorphologist with the National Park Service, explains that the DNR is pressured by timber companies, in a "no tree left behind" environment: "It's a don't-rock-the-boat culture ... a very cronyistic, forester-friendly, we're-gonna-help-these-folks culture."

Forests provide much more than wood. They hold our earth together, mitigate climate change, filter the air and water, cool the earth, provide flood storage, offer habitat and food for countless species and create a refuge for the human soul. Irresponsible logging erases these benefits, rolls out the welcome mat for invasive species and Lyme disease carriers and releases carbon dioxide, worsening climate change.

It's time to halt irresponsible logging practices and bring the timber industry to accountability. Citizens can speak up to loggers and legislators. Wood harvesting can be done intelligently to supply what we need without damaging our lands, undermining our other resources and endangering our citizens.

Is our society unable to make change until catastrophic, headline-making fatalities occur? With the Oso landslide, this prerequisite has been tragically satisfied.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green and sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or find more information on her website.