Rain and clearcuts make fatal brew

  • Umpqua, Oregon

    Diane Sylvain
  • Triple-trailer rig swallowed by sinkhole on Interstate-5

    Robert Kaiser

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 Creek.

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 rubble.

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 6.5 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).

But when 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 Acres.

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 1987.

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 activities."

A call for change

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 correlation.

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 slopes."

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 practices.

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 said.

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 notifications.

Logging is the trigger

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."

Three separate 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 its plan.

Said Henderson, "I'll be damned if I'll watch this happen without a fight."

The writer lives in Portland, Oregon.

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