Albion Monitor /News

Oregon Clearcuts Caused Landslide Deaths

by Jeffrey St. Clair

Landslides killed eight
(IPS) OREGON CITY -- The first really big winter rains in the United States' Pacific Northwest came down from the Gulf of Alaska in the third week of November. Oregon's coast range was drenched by eight inches of water in two days.

In the week of those Oregon rains, landslides killed eight people. And in all but one of the cases, the slides occurred in sites that had been clearcut in the last 10 years by timber giants.

Her car swept into the raging Umpqua River. Hammer drowned
Fly down the coastal range of Oregon on a clear day and you'll see millions of acres of mountainside stripped by the timber giants of the Northwest -- companies such as Weyerheuser, International Paper, Roseburg Lumber, Georgia-Pacific, and Cavenham Forest Industries. It is one of the most intensively logged mountain ranges in the world.

On Nov. 18, a landslide in a rural area a few miles northwest of Roseburg, Oregon, crashed down in the middle of the night onto the home of Rick and Susan Moon, killing them and two friends who had been visiting for the evening. The Moons' two children escaped. A couple of days later, Delsa Hammer of Coos Bay was driving west on Highway 38 through the coastal range towards the town of Reedsport when a landslide swept her car off the road and into the raging Umpqua River. Hammer drowned in her car.

The landslide that killed the Moons and their friends originated in a large clearcut area logged by the Champion International Corporation in 1987.

When Champion announced its plans to log this site, Rick Moon had worried about the possible effects of the clearcut on his home and on the fish population in nearby Hubbard Creek, a stream beloved by flyfishers from Herbert Hoover to Zane Grey. Moon wrote of his concerns to the Oregon Department of Forestry and urged them to halt the clearcut.

Moon had good reason to be worried about the fish. A recent study in the Canadian province of British Columbia shows that erosion caused by logging is deadly to salmon and coastal trout.

The study compared two adjacent watersheds: one was clearcut, the other had not been logged. Drainage from the unlogged area contained an average of 2,226 coho salmon and steelhead per acre, with an average weight of 38.8 pounds per acre. The clearcut drainage contained only 1,420 fish per acre, with an average weight of only 3.9 pounds per acre.

Aside from the increased sediments associated with logging, one of the main culprits in killing off coho and steelhead populations is the dramatic rise in water temperatures, a consequence of cutting down riparian shade. The average July stream temperature of the clearcut drainage was 70 degrees, while the unlogged creek remained at 59 degrees. Salmon and trout thrive in cool waters.

150 landslides in the past 10 months at one of the most heavily logged areas in western Oregon
The situation on the Umpqua River was even worse. In tributaries to the Umpqua, steelhead populations are three times as high in the few remaining unlogged drainages as they are in areas that have been clearcut in the last 15 years.

Moon also had reason to be worried about his house. State foresters and geologists had visited the site that Champion planned to log. They found that parts of the slopes were near vertical and noted that they posed high risks of landslides if logged. But their assessment that the Champion site might be subject to a "mass wasting" landslide was never passed on to the Moons or other nearby home owners.

A week after the Moon catastrophe, Craig Royce, the Forestry Department's Roseburg area director, defended his agency's failure to pass on the vital information.

"The Oregon Department of Forestry is not in the business of protecting houses," Royce declared.

Champion has long since left the landslide site. After logging and exporting the Douglas-firs, the company sold the logged land to Seneca Forest Products, a local company. That particular clearcut was part of a logging binge in the late 1980s by Champion that stretched from Oregon to Montana.

When the company had clearcut nearly 1.5 million acres of its land, it sold off the depleted assets in order to invest in new timberland and paper mills in the northeastern United States, Canada, and Brazil. Champion is the modern exemplar of cut-and-run logging.

The landslide that killed Delsa Hammer as she drove along Highway 38 also began in a recent clearcut that environmental officials knew might trigger a slide. In fact, the Oregon Department of Transportation had tried to keep the area from being logged.

"This was one of those places we just didn't want touched," says Bill Otis, an engineer with the Department of Transportation. But the Department of Forestry, which had jurisdiction over the site, gave the green light.

There was a way out. The Department of Forestry could have required that a 500-foot wide buffer of standing trees be left beside the highway, as recommended by foresters and geologists with the Transportation Department.

The Department could have pursued a land swap that would allow cutting on less fragile terrain. But it pressed ahead. Following Hammer's death, Royce claimed that it was merely excessive rain that had brought about the landslide deaths of Hammer and the others, adding, "The jury is still out on whether logging increases the number and intensity of the landslide."

But internal documents from the Oregon Department of Forestry tell a different story. First of all, they document 150 landslides along this particular stretch of Highway 38 in the past 10 months alone, noting that this is one of the most heavily logged areas in western Oregon.

Moreover, a Forestry Department handbook prepared in 1995 says, "Timber harvests in sensitive areas have also been associated with an increased incidence of mass (soil) movement. Clearcut harvest and/or slash burning may increase (soil) failure rates by 2 to 40 times over rates at undisturbed sites."

Both companies say they have no plans to alter their logging schedule or clearcutting methods in the area despite the deaths
Fredrick Swanson is a forest geologist at Oregon State University who has done extensive research on the relationship between logging methods, soil erosion, and landslides.

"The evidence is indisputable that clearcutting increases the frequency of landslides in the first 20 years after the logging occurs," says Swanson.

In a 1975 study, Swanson showed that landslides in clearcut areas without logging roads occurred at a rate three times higher than slides in undisturbed forests. When roads, skid trails, and yarding areas are constructed in the clearcut sites, the landslide potential increases by several orders of magnitude. The Champion clearcut that collapsed on the Moons' residence was bisected by a logging road and contained numerous yarding sites.

Nonetheless, clearcutting in the coastal mountains about the Umpqua River continues unabated on corporate lands owned by Roseburg Lumber Company and Weyerhaeuser. Both companies say they have no plans to alter their logging schedule or clearcutting methods in the area. But the landslide deaths this year have sparked increasing worries among long-time residents who have been traditional backers of the timber industry.

"I don't want to be labelled an environmentalist," says Lonnie Leonard, who lives on Hubbard Creek beneath a tract of forest scheduled for clearcutting by Roseburg Lumber. "I'm kind of in a bind. But wondering what the timber companies will do is like waiting for destruction. It's like having a sword dangling over your head and not knowing when it will fall."

And what of Champion International?

On December 5, three weeks after the Moons and their friends perished, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt handed Champion International's chief executive office Dick Olson the Interior Department's Corporate Stewardship Award, with these words: "Champion International was among the first to provide practical solutions that allow us to enjoy a healthy environment while promoting economic growth. Wherever Champion has a presence, it has shown that we can use our lands while protecting our natural heritage."

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Albion Monitor January 13, 1997 (

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