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Wash. Forest Practices Board Mulling New Guidelines After Deadly Oso Slide

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Ted S. Warren
/
AP Photo
In this photo taken Wednesday, April 16, 2014, the hillside that gave way in the massive deadly mudslide that hit the community of Oso, Wash. on March 22, 2014 is shown as viewed near the front edge of the resulting debris field.

How to prevent unsafe logging on steep slopes that could cause future landslides will be at the center of discussions in Olympia Wednesday. In the wake of the Oso tragedy, the state’s Forest Practices Board is in the process of updating permitting guidelines. 

The board is rewriting the section of its manual that deals with unstable slopes based on the latest and best advice from a panel of geologists. State forester Aaron Everett says while the guidelines are not binding, they should make it harder for companies seeking to log in unsafe areas.

“The manual is the how-to. And it’s going to cause people to look at these landforms in a more thorough way and, I think, more a policy of avoidance in the end,” Everett said. 

Logging has not been identified by the state as a cause in the Oso slide. A panel of scientists focused instead on record rains and known instability from a prior slide in 2006. But after 43 people were buried alive last March, Everett says the board decided to have another panel of geologists comb through the state’s guidelines to make sure they’re based on the best and most current science. 

“One just has to step back and make certain and make any improvements that can be recommended, by a panel of experts for example, as we have in this case. I think it’s an expectation people have of their government in the face of a tragedy like this," Everett said.

But the non-binding nature of the board’s guidelines has many board members wanting more authority. 

“We are not finished improving the policies around unstable slopes. More needs to be done,” said Mary Scurlock with the board’s environmental caucus that includes the Sierra Club and the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Scurlock says the board is waiting for an opinion from the state attorney general’s office. In May, the board asked whether it has the authority to issue a moratorium on logging permits in unstable areas to better protect public safety. If not, the board asked if an emergency order would be possible.

In any case, Scurlock says the updated guidelines are a first step in the right direction. She hopes they'll be adopted before big winter  rains hit and increase the risk of landslides.

There appears to be little opposition from the logging industry. Cindy Mitchell with the Washington Forest Protection Association says officials want safe and sustainable operations that don't exacerbate landslides. 

"Every sector is and should be looking at their standards for permitting," she said. "So this isn't just a forestry issue; this is a land use issue. And we happen to live in a very geologically active part of the world. And it's difficult to live and build in places where these tragedies happen." 

Meantime, the state department of Natural Resources is asking the legislature for $6.2 million for new LIDAR mapping technology that would reveal where the biggest landslide risks are located.

It has also requested increased staffing to enforce policies in the field.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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