One of the races I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to this election season is Peter Goldmark’s incredibly strong challenge of two-term Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland (R-Weyerhaeuser).
Goldmark is a farmer, rancher, molecular biology PHD, and former state Agriculture Director and WSU regent, who is not only exceptionally well qualified (and simply a great guy) but a rare opportunity for folks on the other side of the mountains to put one of their own in a statewide elected office. Sutherland, on the other hand, has proven himself to be a lax manager who has clearly sided with timber and mining interests over those of us ordinary citizens who actually own the public lands in his charge.
Sutherland’s failure to effectively manage public lands and protect public resources and public safety was highlighted last December, when torrential rains led to over 730 landslides in the Upper Chehalis Basin alone, that wiped out roads, destroyed homes and contributed to flooding that caused more than $57 million in property damage in Lewis County. And as the Seattle Times reports in an extensive multi-part investigative series, 30% of the landslides were produced from steep sites that had been clearcut without proper oversight from Sutherland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
State forestry rules empower the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to restrict logging on unstable slopes when landslides could put public resources or public safety at risk.
But in Little Mill Creek and elsewhere in the Upper Chehalis basin, a Seattle Times investigation found that Weyerhaeuser frequently clear-cut on unstable slopes, with scant oversight from the state geologists who are supposed to help watchdog the timber industry.
As Boistfort Valley farmer David Fenn told the Times while standing on his debris covered property,
“Well, look in the field. They get to cut trees and make money, and I get to clean up their mess.
Of course, heavy rains cause landslides, so some of this type of damage is always inevitable in our region, but the state has developed strict rules on approving clear cuts on unstable slopes… rules that DNR apparently has not been enforcing for years. Since 2002 thousands of cuts have been approved without timber companies filing geological reports, and without DNR geologists surveying the sites on their own. And many of these cuts occurred on sites which prior surveys had already determined to be highly unstable, this despite the fact that both the science and the rules are absolutely clear.
David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor who reviewed The Seattle Times’ findings, believes Weyerhaeuser underestimated the risks of clear-cutting.
He notes that several logged areas included features specifically defined in state rules as potentially unstable.
Logging these areas removes trees that help intercept the rain and bind the soil. Decades of studies, which have been used to help shape state forest-practice rules, show logging such slopes can increase the number and size of slides.
Montgomery wrote some of those studies. His blunt assessments of the connection between logging and landslides have sometimes rankled state and industry officials.
“If the policy is not to increase landsliding, then they have no business cutting on some of these slopes,” Montgomery said. “There is not a mechanistic model on this planet that would predict cutting down those trees would do anything other than reduce stability. The only question is how much.”
And it’s not just private land owners and mud-clogged municipal water companies who have been forced to clean up DNR’s mess at great expense. As the Times reports today in Part II of their series, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) is at wits end attempting to watchdog the DNR watchdogs at proposed logging sites near state roads, often finding itself in the position of forcing DNR to enforce its own rules.
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.”
Frustrating yes, and expensive too, with a recent landslide along one portion of Highway 107 alone costing taxpayers over $3 million in repairs and maintenance.
As for Sutherland, he seems pretty nonplussed by the controversy:
“Do we have enough oversight?” Sutherland said. “With the folks available, with the data available. With the technology available. My answer would be yes, we do. Can we improve it? Definitely.”
I agree, we definitely can improve DNR oversight, but things have only gotten worse under Sutherland’s eight years of mismanagement, not better. So if we really want a Commissioner who is willing and able to enforce DNR’s regulations, and protect both public resources and public safety, it is time to elect Peter Goldmark.