Logged hillsides collapse into Idaho's creeks

  • Clearwater National Forest in Idaho

    Diane Sylvain
  • Rain, roads and clearcuts create a mess on Clearwater National Forest

    Bill Haskins

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.

Not 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 picture."

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.

Damage 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 all.

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 boulders.

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.

Ranger 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 corridor."

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."

But timber 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 ones.

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 areas.

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."

"I've been 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 recover."

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 slide.

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 learning experience.

"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.

Espinosa and others are skeptical. "They don't take any risks with their (timber) program," Espinosa says. "They put the risk on the watershed."

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.

This fragile watershed is targeted for logging again this summer under the salvage logging rider signed into law last year by President Bill Clinton.

Ken Olsen reports for the Idaho Spokesman-Review.

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