Slides Putting Our Highways in Danger
By Hal Bernton and Justin Mayo, Seattle Times
Jul. 14–PE ELL, Lewis County — Last December’s big storms left Highway 6 in bad shape.
A logged slope above the highway cracked and gave way, destroying one home, damaging another and blocking the road. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) spent $3.3 million and three months cleaning up the mess from the landslide, eventually hauling away 10,000 truckloads of debris from the road that links this southwest Washington town to the coast.
For DOT geologists, the slide exemplified their frustration with state oversight of logging around the highways of southwest Washington, a region rife with unstable hillsides.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which enforces forestry rules, can restrict clear-cutting when geological reviews indicate landslides could put public safety or public resources at risk. But near Highway 6 and other roadside logging sites, state foresters often have opted to skip these reviews when approving logging permits.
DOT geologists never knew about the plans by a small landowner to log above Highway 6, so they never pushed for a site visit by a geologist certified by DNR as a qualified expert in unstable slopes.
But they have raised concerns about logging at 20 other sites along state highways, asking the Natural Resources Department to require geological reviews, according to a DOT official.
That happened at about half those sites, and state DOT geologists continue to spar with state foresters about logging plans above highways.
“I don’t feel that there is a burden of responsibility that is taken seriously,” said Tom Badger, a DOT geologist. “I really think there is a systemic problem.”
DNR officials say they are not shirking their oversight duties. They do watch for unstable slopes and sometimes put areas off-limits to logging, noting that a steep portion of the hillside above Highway 6 was left uncut.
“We always respond to DOT in some way,” said Jack Shambo, a DNR forester in Chehalis. “The foresters are trained to spot unstable slopes. So they can make the determination whether to call in an expert or not.”
State forestry rules are based on numerous studies that indicate logging and building logging roads can increase the number and magnitude of landslides. Along highways, slides pose a special risk because, in addition to damaging roads, they can threaten the safety of drivers and sometimes homes or farm buildings.
State Transportation geologists raised questions about roadside logging as early as December 2005, when a landslide dislodged nearly 300 feet of state Highway 107 near Montesano, Grays Harbor County. The landslide pushed the road toward the Chehalis River. Repairs and stabilization work cost more than $3 million.
Badger checked out the hillside after the slide.
He found that it started in a 51-acre Weyerhaeuser clear-cut. The site was in the middle of terrain that had hummocks — small mounds that are an indicator of possible instability — and was noted on a 1960s map as part of an ancient landslide area. But the logging application was submitted without a geological report.
Badger was surprised DNR had not required a review, which might have documented the instability.
“If you were a geologist, there would have been no way you wouldn’t have come to that conclusion,” Badger said.
Weyerhaeuser did place some unstable areas off-limits to logging.
They are skeptical that logging played a role in the landslide within the clear-cut. Rather, they say the highway itself may have been the biggest contributor because road building can make the land less stable.
“If there is a question of public safety, we would take every step to make sure it is protected,” said Frank Mendizabal, a Weyerhaeuser spokesman.
Badger hoped the Highway 107 failure would serve as a wake-up call and bring increased oversight of roadside logging from DNR.
But in December 2006, Badger received an alert from highway-maintenance workers.
Weyerhaeuser was about to log two sites along a stretch of Highway 101 in Grays Harbor County that was built in a slide-prone area with chronic maintenance problems. Once again, the logging had been approved without a geological report.
Days later, Badger and others from the Transportation Department met with officials from Weyerhaeuser and DNR.
Weyerhaeuser geologist Jim Ward said the company would remove a sensitive 5-acre tract from the logging plan. But Weyerhaeuser officials hoped to eventually log that tract if drainage and stability were improved along the highway, according to DOT notes of the meeting.
Badger preferred that the tract never be logged. And he pressed for more geological reviews elsewhere.
Natural Resources officials agreed to step up the reviews. But they believed the Transportation Department was asking for an excessive number of reviews that would strain their agency’s limited staff, according to the meeting notes.
Family fled home
as slope collapsed
The Transportation Department’s efforts to monitor roadside-logging applications got off to a shaky start.
Among the thousands of permits requested each year, there initially was no way to pinpoint those for land adjacent to the state highway system. Finding those applications was hit-or-miss — and one the Transportation Department failed to flag was the permit to log above Highway 6.
The land was owned by the Muller family, a Pe Ell family that had settled in the area more than a century ago. The clan’s offspring include Mike Krafczyk, who lived right below the hillside with his wife, Tonya, and their two children.
The slope contained a spring, which is considered a possible indicator of unstable slopes. When the family’s logging application reached the DNR, a state forester checked “unstable slopes” in a screening document.
But in a site visit, the forester concluded that the trouble spots weren’t in the logging area, and that the spring was protected by a buffer zone of uncut trees. So the forester decided there was no need to bring in a geologist, according to Lenny Young, a DNR official.
But a geologist who walked the site might have found an important clue of instability.
Deep within the tree cover was a feature known as an “arcuate,” a long curved stair step that stretched across the upper slope. It outlined where the land had slid before.
This was also the spot where the land slipped again during the December storm, according to Doug Anderson, a Transportation Department geologist who detected the feature in a laser-generated image of the slope taken before the landslide.
In a period of hours on Dec. 3, mud cascaded down the hill, piling up on the highway and eventually ramming a parked Chevy Tahoe through the house where Tonya Krafczyk and her two children had taken shelter.
Krafczyk grabbed her kids and fled through the back door, wading across flooded fields. “We could hear it crackling and crunching,” she recalls. “They were both screaming, and I was panic-stricken.”
Aerial photos offered a disturbing view of the storm’s aftermath.
“Attached is a photo of the landslide … that hit two houses,” Venice Goetz, a DNR geologist, wrote in a Dec. 7 e-mail to a colleague. “… Bummer, it’s from a clear-cut.”
Tired of looking “over
the shoulder” of DNR
During the past year, Transportation Department officials have streamlined their reviews of the logging applications. They now get e-mail alerts when a harvest is proposed along most state routes in Western Washington.
In March, Weyerhaeuser sought permits to cut 49 acres along another site above Highway 101 in Grays Harbor County. State foresters once again noted unstable slopes in an office checklist. But they didn’t ask for a geological review until Eric Bilderback, a state Transportation geologist, relayed his concerns.
A Weyerhaeuser geologist then agreed to withdraw 5 acres that Bilderback cited as potentially unstable.
“We shouldn’t always have to look over the shoulder of everyone else,” Bilderback said. “It’s kind of frustrating that this is not catching on.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Mayo: 206-464-3669 or email@example.com.
How a landslide starts
Landslides occur naturally in the forest, carving out slopes and reshaping the landscape.
Typically triggered during intense storms when soils become saturated, landslides are an essential natural process. Slides deposit wood and gravel in streams, which is critical to fish habitat and spawning grounds.
But studies show landslide rates increase after logging and road-building. Trees help bind the soil together, their roots anchoring the ground and protecting it from erosion. The forest canopy also intercepts rainfall and reduces the amount and velocity of surface runoff.
After trees are logged, the roots decay in a few years. Replanted trees do not provide much root strength until they are about 15 years old. During this period, clear-cut slopes, especially those with potentially unstable features, are at greatest risk for landslides.
Sources: Washington State Forest Practices Board Manual; Geologist Nancy Sturhan, of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
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