UMPQUA, Ore. - In their octagonal house on a remote forested slope 30 miles northwest of Roseburg, Rick and Susan Moon and their next-door neighbor, Sharon Marvin, sat in the path of disaster Nov. 18. Above them in the gathering dark, curtains of rain were working away at the mountain, swelling a small creek and loosing the grip of roots that hold soil to bedrock.
The first landslide tumbled down Rock
Creek from a clearcut high on the mountain and came to rest near
the Marvins' house. The second slide hit as Ann Maxwell, a friend
from Roseburg, walked up the road toward the Moon house. Rick Moon
pushed his 16-year-old daughter, Rachelle, barefoot out the door.
She ran for her life.
As Rick went for the
others, a river of mud, water, logs, stumps and boulders roared
down the creekbed, carrying enormous trees torn from the earth. It
smashed into the Moons' hand-crafted home, scattering pieces of the
house and its contents for 300 yards, all the way down to Hubbard
Rescuers found Rick Moon's body under the
wreckage of his home that night. They recovered the bodies of Susan
Moon, Sharon Marvin and Ann Maxwell the next day. Small flower
shrines mark the sites where their bodies came to rest amid the
Rachelle and 13-year-old Justin Moon
survived, as did Arnold Ryder, a 70-year-old newspaper delivery man
who lived through a wild ride down the mountainside in a torrent of
mud and debris.
When the worst of the
record-smashing rain storm was over, floods and landslides had
caused at least $3.4 million in damages to roads, bridges and other
structures in Douglas, Coos and Lane counties - including a
100-foot sinkhole beneath Interstate 5 which swallowed
two-semi-trucks and closed the West Coast's main north-south artery
for three days. Eight people had died, including a mother and her
two toddlers who were swept to their death in the Umpqua River by a
mudslide Nov. 30.
Acts of God,
or hand of man?
At first glance, the landslides
seemed an act of God. The geology underlying the coastal areas of
Oregon makes the area prone to sliding in heavy rains; more than
61'2 inches fell in a 24-hour period at North Bend on the Oregon
Coast Nov. 18 and Nov. 19, triggering memories of the 100-year
floods that inundated the Pacific Northwest in late fall and winter
of 1996 (HCN, 1/22/96, 3/4/96).
Associated Press reporter Jeff Barnard began asking questions of
the Oregon Department of Forestry, he learned that the Rock Creek
slide had originated in a nine-year-old clearcut on an 80 percent
slope above Hubbard Creek. Hand-written notes in the agency's file
revealed that Rick Moon and his neighbor, Jeffrey Orr, had
expressed concern to state forestry officials in 1986 over Champion
International's plan to log 168 acres on the steep slope above
their forest enclave, which they fondly called Stump
State officials agreed that the Moon house
was in an area with "high potential for slide damage," according to
a handwritten notation. But they decided not to require the company
to prepare a detailed plan explaining how it would mitigate the
risk of landslides. The site was logged in
Clearcut logging may have played a part,
too, in the death of 48-year-old Delsa Hammer of Coos Bay. A
landslide pushed her car off Highway 38 into the frigid waters of
the swollen Umpqua River Nov. 18. The slide originated in a
clearcut logged in 1991 and 1992, on land that was prone to
landslides even before logging occurred. A forester with the Oregon
Department of Transportation came forward to reveal that he had
tried to arrange trades of state land for three private tracts to
avert logging on the steep slope above the highway. But two of the
three swaps failed to materialize. Both tracts were clearcut.
The Oregon Department of Forestry, which is
charged with regulating logging on private land, claimed after the
deaths that it is powerless to prevent clearcutting on steep
slopes. "It's all private land," said Roseburg District Forester
Steve Truesdell. "We don't have the authority to not allow
A call for
The tragedies have brought calls for a
moratorium on clearcutting on high-risk slopes and a tightening of
the state's Forest Practices Act. They've also trained a spotlight
on the Department of Forestry, which continues to insist that there
is no demonstrable relationship between logging operations and
landslides despite numerous studies that show a strong
On Dec. 5, about 50 conservationists
huddled outside the state Capitol in Salem to demand reforms.
"The Forest Practices Act is totally
inadequate," said Francis Eatherington of the environmental group,
Umpqua Watersheds. "There are a lot of problems with the way our
community watersheds have been logged. No buffers are required on
intermittent streams, and logging is allowed on even the steepest
Eatherington and others called for a
state-imposed moratorium on clearcutting steep slopes, especially
those above inhabited dwellings. Several activists vowed to mount
an initiative campaign to put a stronger Forest Practices Act on
the 1998 ballot. Later, they met with Paula Burgess, Gov. John
Kitzhaber's natural resources aide, to ask for the governor's help.
Kitzhaber, who was a Roseburg emergency room
physician before he became governor, and who knew some of the
victims and survivors personally, has been silent on the tragedies.
Burgess said Kitzhaber has asked for an independent study of what
caused the slide at Hubbard Creek but has not signaled whether he
will become directly involved. She pointed out that it is the Board
of Forestry that establishes forest
Timber industry spokesman Ray Wilkeson
said the industry might support changes in the Forest Practices Act
if a state study, under way since last February's floods, shows a
cause-and-effect relationship between forest practices and
landslides. But he said land-use issues - such as where people are
allowed to build houses in commercial forest areas - also should be
part of the discussion. "There's more to this than forestry," he
The timber industry, however, has worked to
undermine restrictions on logging steep slopes. In 1991 the Oregon
Legislature passed a law requiring timber companies to prepare
written plans in all cases where they plan to log high-risk areas.
But in 1995, the industry pushed a bill through that lifted the
requirement for mandatory written plans. In most cases Oregon
timber companies are required only to provide a 15-day advance
notification before logging begins, and adjacent landowners must
pay to receive these
Logging is the
A sandstone formation covers much of the
Coastal Range, and within this geologic zone, soil frequently
separates from bedrock in heavy rain. Most experts agree, however,
that logging and road-building increase the risk.
"In the Umpqua drainage, we have a lot of steep,
highly dissected terrain," says George Bush, a soils specialist for
the Forest Service. "If you have a slope that is only marginally
stable, and if you remove the forest cover, it can be the straw
that triggers a debris slide."
aerial surveys conducted after last February's floods found that a
disproportionate number of the landslides occurred in areas
recently logged, roaded or both. In the Coast Range, of 183
landslides observed from the air, 114 began in clearcuts and 38
appeared to be triggered by logging roads. A Forest Service study
of the Clackamas River drainage in the Mount Hood National Forest
found that 72 percent of the 254 slides surveyed occurred in logged
or roaded areas.
If the Oregon Department of
Forestry doesn't trust those findings, it could heed its own. A
report ordered by the 1991 Legislature, which the department has
not publicized and does not endorse, concluded that clearcut
harvest and slash burning on steep slopes "may increase failure
rates by two to 40 times over rates on undisturbed sites."
That those findings are ignored angers Karen
Henderson, who lives along Hubbard Creek just a mile from the
landslide that took the lives of her neighbors at Stump Acres. At
their memorial service, she learned that Roseburg Forest Products,
which owns the forested ridge above her home, plans to begin
logging its property next spring. She has gone public with her fear
over what might happen to her house if the company goes ahead with
Said Henderson, "I'll be damned if
I'll watch this happen without a fight."
The writer lives
in Portland, Oregon.