CLEARWATER NATIONAL FOREST, Idaho - Forest Service ranger Art Bourassa pulls off to the side of the road and looks up at a raw and broken hillside. Some might assume it's the freshly scalped victim of a strip-mining operation.
this time. Torrential November rains washed out this section of
forest in northern Idaho. At the top of the ridge, a four-year-old
logging road gave way, sending a torrent of mud and debris through
a clearcut and a portion of another logging road before dumping
into the North Fork of the Clearwater.
"I wish we
didn't have a road up there," Bourassa says. "This is not a good
It is a picture, however, that has
repeated itself over and over again in the forests of northern
Idaho and western Montana this winter. Hundreds of slides have
washed out logging roads, clogging streams and transforming
forest-green slopes into stark gouges of sandy brown.
All of the evidence of damage won't be collected
until next summer. And while some Forest Service officials say it
is too early to assign blame, others bluntly say the devastation
was aggravated by too many clearcuts in combination with fragile
soils and roads built in the wrong places.
is most severe here on the Clearwater, where more than 100 major
slides, slumps and washouts have occurred and 28 major roads have
closed. Some of them might not reopen for a couple of years, if at
The worst slide shoved 500,000 tons of dirt,
debris and rock - enough to fill 30,000 average-sized dump trucks -
onto a road and into Quartz Creek, 20 miles east of Dworshak
Reservoir. It temporarily plugged the creek with a dam that was two
city blocks wide, six stories tall, and topped by school-bus-sized
The Forest Service has asked for $8
million from the Federal Highway Administration's emergency bank
account to repair these roads. An estimated $1 million will go
toward the Quartz Creek slide alone.
Bourassa candidly acknowleges that some of the roads on the forest
shouldn't have been built, because of their location, poor drainage
and instability. In some places, "there were too many roads, too
close together," he says. The roads, however, provide loggers with
access to trees in the drainage. "If we didn't build in medium- to
high-risk areas, we wouldn't have a road down the North Fork
Logging in this area has been
aggressive in the past. "Up to four or five years ago, everything
was heavily clearcut," Bourassa says. "That probably wasn't what
Mother Nature planned."
representatives blame nature for this year's problems. November was
warmer than usual, and most of the moisture came as rain - 10
inches of rain to be exact, which is twice the month's average. Mud
slides are "one of the facts of life in any forest," points out
Mike Sullivan of Potlatch Corp. "When you have heavy, wet weather,
you are going to have soil move." An unhealthy forest is worse, he
adds, because vigorous trees hold onto soil better than weak
Ken Kohli of the Intermountain Forest
Industry Association says at least half the slides occurred in
unlogged drainages. The early evidence doesn't support this
contention. While serious debris torrents occurred in at least a
half-dozen untouched watersheds - one punched out a section of U.S.
Highway 12, the only direct route between Lewiston, Idaho, and
Lolo, Mont., - most seemed to take place in logged and roaded
Bill Haskins of the Ecology Center in
Missoula, Mont., started exploring the area soon after the flooding
began. "I stood in places where creeks from logged and roaded areas
joined with creeks from undeveloped areas," Haskins says. "When the
creek came from a logged area, it was muddy, and when it came from
a roadless area, it was clear."
warning them since 1974 to stay out of those watersheds and let
them heal," says Al Espinosa, the chief fisheries biologist on the
Clearwater who retired in 1993 after two decades of service.
Overlogging means there aren't enough trees to stabilize the soil
or soak up moisture, he says. "Those watersheds are steep and
fragile, and once you nuke the hell out of them, they never
Even helicopter logging is not
environmentally benign, says Espinosa. In 1979, a salvage
helicopter operation on Quartz Creek took out most of the viable
trees, leaving behind those ravaged by a disease known as blister
rust. Those trees toppled readily in November's massive
A dozen environmental and conservation
groups have asked the Forest Service to form a blue-ribbon panel to
determine where logging, roads and poor soils caused landslides. At
a minimum, the agency says it will use this year's slides as a
"We can't go blindly ahead
and say nothing's happened," says Bourassa, the North Fork's
district ranger. Where roads and logging are at fault, the agency
will not repeat the mistake, he says.
and others are skeptical. "They don't take any risks with their
(timber) program," Espinosa says. "They put the risk on the
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the
heavens. An unusually wet spring could make the current damage
worse. Some fear a repeat of the winter of 1964-65, which started
with similar fall weather, followed by heavy spring rains that
rapidly melted snowpacks along the South Fork of the Salmon River.
Logging roads went gushing into creeks, wiping out a significant
portion of the spawning grounds for summer chinook salmon in the
Upper Columbia River Basin.
watershed is targeted for logging again this summer under the
salvage logging rider signed into law last year by President Bill
Ken Olsen reports for
the Idaho Spokesman-Review.