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Moving Heaven & Earth

Recalling the 30th anniversary of the Smith Creek landslide
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“I’m concerned about landslides,” Whatcom County Council member Bill Knutzen declared last week, trying to get to “no” on a proposal that might protect up to 9,000-acres of steep forest around Lake Whatcom from just such a catastrophic event. Yet despite his perverse opposition to such a plan, his concern about landslides is real, his company is vast, and the story of them is long. In the end, it’s all about landslides.

On a chilly morning in 1998, two Sudden Valley mothers were startled by the sounds of explosions in the steep forested hills above their homes. The state Dept. of Natural Resources had approved another clearcut on Lake Whatcom and the explosions they heard were the sounds of roadbuilding to haul logs out of a 212-acre timber sale at Austin Flat.

Linda Marrom and Jamie Berg feared the explosions might trigger a landslide. And they feared for good reason.

Fifteen years earlier, on January, 10, 1983, on the far side of the lake, an old, nearly forgotten logging road weakened by snowmelt failed, sending tons of earth and slash down Smith Creek.

“Barbara Snow was alone in her home by the lake on that January morning,” reporter Bob Simmons recalled years later. “She awoke at 5 o’clock to a terrifying scraping and hammering at the sides of her house. She opened the door to her carport to see what was going on. Tons of muddy, ice-cold water rushed into the house. In moments the water was chest high and she was struggling in the darkness to get out.”

Snow swam with the flow, not against it. That saved her life, but the debris-filled torrent swept her (and scraps of her home) out into the winter chill of the lake.

Down the road, another couple were startled awake by a similar snapping and cracking of timber, as though scraps of lumber were being thrown against their house.

“Suddenly,” Loren Webb recalled, “the whole house began to shake and rumble. We both just bolted straight up in bed. My wife guessed it first—the creek. I put my pants on and went outside to look. Then I just turned to rubber.”

The creek, he recalled, “big enough to jump across in summer” was now a mad torrent filled with mud, boulders and trees. Clearcut slash and dislodged soil hit the house like a thunderclap, and that creek was now a clogged sea broader than a football field. Yonder, a Honda Civic perched atop a fence. A vacant mobile home sagged, punched through like an aluminum can. Across the road, a heavy truck lay demolished among a tangle of logs that hours earlier had been someone’s front lawn.

Snow and her neighbors the Webbs huddled in the cold for hours, waiting for rescue from one of the largest landslides in recent memory. Nearly 80 acres of soil and slash had crashed down from steep slopes above them. Roads and bridges were obliterated. Cars and homes were lifted and hurled into the lake, joining a sea of debris that swept out over the lake’s surface.

In days that followed, as Smith Creek and Agate Bay homeowners dug their lives from the mud and wreckage, helicopters would skim the lake and survey the damage. Grim elected officials, seeking to calm public fears, would lowball the damage they saw, estimating five to 10 acres of filthy debris clogging the city’s drinking water supply; others, less mindful of coming lawsuits, estimated a debris field eight times that size, or 80 acres. Heartache had scarcely begun, as later in the week Bellingham Public Works set booms and opened floodgates to lower lake levels. Torrents shot into already swollen Whatcom Creek, which crested and destroyed many businesses along Iowa Street.

Now came the lawsuits. Over the next two years, suits would charge that aggressive forestry practices by the original landowner Georgia-Pacific had contributed to the landslide. Yet GP protested that the company had clearcut those hills decades before and had done no recent logging in the area now owned by Trillium Corporation. Debris from long-forgotten harvests had, over the years, tumbled into a dam that began squeezing off Smith Creek as early as 1976.

A lake formed behind the dam, which in heavy rains eventually failed, spewing water and debris out onto the alluvial fan and into Lake Whatcom. Once believing these alluvial soils safe, many new homes had been built near the tamed trickle that had been Smith Creek.

Litigants eventually settled quietly, for an unpublicized sum; however, what is known is cleanup costs for the ’83 event topped $12 million (in 1983 dollars). The driving focus in settlement was on economic justice to private property holders. A more circumspect consideration of environmental justice for the wider public was—in this era—decades away.

Indeed, harm to the public watershed has lasted much longer than the private litigation. The scar from the slide can still be seen on the face of Stewart Mountain.

In a letter to DNR, Richard Horner—a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington—estimated, “43 percent of the entire sediment loading expected from forestry activities over 90 years—and presumably a similar amount of phosphorus export—was estimated to be from mass wasting during one event in January 1983.” Ninety years of soil in 90 minutes!

“The effects of clearcuts and logging roads stick around for years, potential ticking time bombs for large landslides,” said Gordon Grant, a hydrologist for the federal Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Oregon, commenting on similar mass wasting events in Lewis County in 2010.

“Landslides can happen anywhere, including on forested ground. But forestland that has been clearcut is up to five times more likely to slide in flood conditions, and forestland with logging roads is even more vulnerable,” Grant noted. “Those landslides can bring down logs, creating debris flows that stop up streams, culverts and even rivers.”

Of course, it doesn’t take a forestry expert or a geologist to know that when you strip leaf and root from a hillside, muddy water flows faster. When you cut a road across a hill face, you expose rock and soil to new forces of erosion.

Whatcom County Parks Director Mike McFarland sketched Lake Whatcom’s operative hydrology in a presentation to County Council last week.

“We have some incredibly steep slopes there,” he said. “We have some very thin soils, and when an area is clearcut those soils tend to accumulate more moisture. With tree cover—particularly evergreen cover—some moisture stays up in the treetops and doesn’t make it down to the bottom. The trees are also absorbing moisture from their roots and releasing that back into the atmosphere.

“More importantly,” McFarland cautioned, “when it snows on clearcuts, it accumulates in greater amounts and when we have rain events, some of those areas become destabilized because the soils have become completely saturated—steep slopes, no root mass holding the soils there. After a clearcut, it takes about 30 to 40 years for new trees to develop root mass to the same quality of a standing forest.”

County Council, meeting on the 30th anniversary of the Smith Creek landslide, learned last week there have been many slides around Lake Whatcom, although perhaps none larger than that event. Numerous others spot the landscape like freckles, including fairly significant slides that swept across the Hertz Trail at Lake Whatcom Park in 2004, 2009 and 2011. A recent slide again dumped boulders and slash, a remnant of forestry practices from long ago, across the trail just days before their meeting last week, council learned.

“The data on rain-on-snow events was known back in 1983 when Trillium did a study of the watershed,” McFarland noted. “Their consultants laid out this data very carefully” and it is, he said, robust and unassailable.

Linda Marrom and Jamie Berg also learned about landslides and their causes as accidental activists, striving to protect their homes below Lookout Mountain. They learned that state forestry practices had changed only little from the 1980s.

The alarmed mothers began calling everyone they could think of, and by summer were leading area legislators, local elected officials, geologists, hydrologists and forestry experts on hikes to look at the proposed sale.

“We both must have been crazy to think we could take on the state,” Marrom and Berg admitted in a joint statement. “We were not geologists. It just seemed like common sense to do something about it. We wrote up a petition to see if we could generate interest, to see if people would support us. We left about 15 pages with space for signatures on each side [at the Valley Market]. We came back after three days and it was full front and back. I think we had about 350 people.

By fall of 1998, they’d gathered a petition with more than 5,000 signatures in favor of stopping the sale. They delivered this to DNR head Jennifer Belcher, then Commissioner of Public Lands, at a town hall meeting she’d scheduled in Bellingham for a different purpose.

At last they’d convinced others. State Senator Harriet Spanel (D-40) believed their concerns had merit and introduced Senate Bill 5536, passed unanimously during the 1999 legislative session. Revised in a second substitute bill, it mandated the Lake Whatcom Pilot Project and, ultimately, the lake’s landscape plan for future timber harvests. The plan was approved by Belcher’s replacement at DNR, Doug Sutherland, and the state Board of Natural Resources.

The bill and plan set a standard for logging based on what is sustainable within the watershed. Perhaps most important, the Lake Whatcom Bill grants citizens a seat at the table, establishing a local committee to work closely with DNR to enhance their landscape plan and review DNR logging activities on trust lands in the watershed.

“I believe it was a strong opinion among the Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team that certain areas should not be logged under any forestry plan,” said geologist Dan McShane, who served on the IJCT and on the Whatcom County Council. “And I believe that was the opinion of many of the homeowners below those slopes who signed the original petition.”

McShane’s long history with public lands forestry issues began when he was originally asked by Marron and Berg to review the forest road proposal by DNR. McShane was among the many they’d called.

At the state level, “the Board really did not like the landscape plan,” McShane explained. “They did not like the fact that the state Legislature had dictated new forest practice rules specific to a single watershed. They did not like the impacts to trust land revenue generation. They did not like the additional management costs.”

The state, he concluded, is motivated to change management practices the county wants to keep in place. The state’s end game could well return to the beginning.

These watershed lands had been heavily logged in the earliest part of the 20th Century and were largely underproductive when the national economy collapsed in the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of acres in tax foreclosure were transferred to counties in the ’20s and ’30s through bankruptcy proceedings. Counties, without sufficient resources to manage these ravaged lands, turned to the state. The state took these lands and managed them as trusts for public benefit. Yet, counties had transferred the lands to the state with the provision that they could acquire them back. And the state agreed, provided the lands remained in use by and for the public forever, as parklands.

Amenable to a solution that might get these troublesome lands, and the troublesome (and precedent-setting) forestry policies that accompanied them, off the state’s books, the Board of Natural Resources agreed to an intertrust exchange that assessed the value of these timberlands, consolidated them, and apportioned them to the trust beneficiaries. Forests on stable lands outside the watershed would be held by the state and harvested for trust beneficiaries. The remainder might be managed by the county.

Absent such a transfer and management plan from the county, DNR’s operative policy would be to gate off these lands, Parks Director McFarland told County Council. The state’s policy would limit the recreational uses of these lands and the economic benefit the county might receive from that use.

Those economic benefits were scoped in a recent letter to the county administration from more than 100 area businesses, urging the county to complete the land transfer as an aide to tourism and recreation.

“Areas for economic growth are dependent on the preservation of our natural environment and provision for sustainable recreation within it,” the businesses wrote. “Our natural landscape can compete with anybody’s; but we’re currently not making the most of it.”

McFarland sketched the differences between state and county management.

“We’re really looking at two different ways of managing the forest,” he told council. “The state is charged with managing forests for commercial purpose. They do a great job of raising trees, harvesting them, performing a timber sale and generating revenue for the trust beneficiaries. Their priority is to maximize revenue for those beneficiaries on a 60-year harvest cycle.”

The state’s policy of protecting a commercial asset generally means gates and fences across access points, he explained.

“Through the Reconveyance, the county gets to set what those priorities are on the landscape plan,” McFarland said. “To this point, recreation and watershed protection have been discussed as two main county priorities. A more natural forest environment would be more beneficial to the priorities of recreation and protection than commercial harvesting.

“If you want a natural forest, there is a different prescription on how to get there than the prescription for commercially harvesting the land every 60 years.”

But while the community might envision many priorities for a clean lake surrounded by forested hills threaded with trails and scenic views, in the beginning it was all about landslides.

Portions of this article appeared in Cascadia Weekly in 2008. Acknowledgment and thanks is given to Robert Simmons for the parallel research he’s given to the Smith Creek landslide. Special thanks is given to Tore Ofteness for his excellent photographs documenting the 1983 event.

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