Politics & Government

Unstable slopes? Washington’s lands chief says more money is needed to review logging requests

John Reed, who lives at the edge of the Oso, Wash., mudslide, stands in the debris field on the bank of the North Fork Stillaguamish River after the 2014 slide.
John Reed, who lives at the edge of the Oso, Wash., mudslide, stands in the debris field on the bank of the North Fork Stillaguamish River after the 2014 slide. Seattle Times

Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz wants more staff and more time to review a rising number of requests to log around potentially unstable slopes.

Franz wants the Legislature to approve $490,000 for the next fiscal year to hire more Department of Natural Resources (DNR) engineers to help review these logging and road-building proposals. Along with money to hire staff to review logging requests, Franz wants $1.6 million to hire staff to research and map a 50-square mile corridor along Highway 530 in Snohomish County that runs by the slide area in Oso where 43 people died on March 22, 2014.

Franz also is backing state Senate Bill 6235 that she says would roughly double the 30-day time frame that state DNR staff have to evaluate harvests.

Franz cites state statistics that indicate the number of applications to log on or near potentially unstable slopes has climbed from 332 in 2012 to 756 in 2017.

Currently we do not have the resources or the tools necessary to safeguard the public from landslide risk.

Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands

“Currently we do not have the resources or the tools necessary to safeguard the public from landslide risk,” Franz said as she met last week with reporters on state forest lands west of Olympia.

State forestry laws, based on scientific studies, acknowledge that logging can increase the number and size of landslides unleashed during big storms. The rules have evolved over time in an effort to limit clear-cutting of unstable slopes where slides could put public safety or public resources at risk.

The issue gained a higher profile in the aftermath of the Oso landslide. Logging was allowed on the plateau above the soggy slope that gave way in 2014.

Franz’s proposals to hire more staff have the support of the Washington Forest Protection Association, which represents large industrial landowners.

But the association opposes the state Senate bill.

Cindy Mitchell, an association spokeswoman, says that state forest-practices division staff already can reject a proposal for lack of information and doesn’t need a 30-day “pre-application process” created by SB 6235.

“This isn’t about more protection. It is about more process,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell noted that the overall state timber-harvest volume in 2016 was lower than in 2012. She attributed the increase in applications largely to a broader definition by state forest-practices staff of what constitutes logging on or around potentially unstable slopes.

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