fwd: massive landslide threatens Headwaters

Larry Caldwell larryc at teleport.com
Fri Feb 20 12:42:55 EST 1998

In article <19980219183101.NAA06645 at ladder03.news.aol.com>,
camillah at aol.com (CamillaH) wrote:

> Sorry to drag this out, but I really want to understand.  The slope that came
> down near my home was largely bare slope (actually rock & dirt nearly vertical
> grade) for a long time.  The freeway was cut into the side of the mountain. 
> The grade was severe enough that there was another slope between the west
> direction and the east direction of the freeway.  Prior to the fire, at the top
> of the mountain, there were trees, brush and grasses.  So, with the vegetation
> gone from the top of the mountain, the rain going onto and running off the
> "fire bare" land wouldn't likely have produced a landslide?   Despite the fact
> that the freeway had been there for decades, the fire only occurred a short
> time before, and heavy rains no doubt did make the dirt heavy, there is no way
> to establish causation to this slide?   I'll have to take your word for it if
> you say yes, but it seems common sense that much of the rain that made the dirt
> heavy would have been absorbed by the vegetation had it been there.  (BTW, the
> mountain started sliding again in the latest rains.)

I don't think we're dragging this out.  It seems like a normal conversation
to me.  

As far as what caused your landslide, I can't say for certain, and I suspect
that nobody else can either.  However, anywhere west of the Cascades on
a steep slope composed of anything but solid rock, you can bet that it
has slid in the past, and will slide again in the future.  People have
a very short attention span when compared to the lifetime of mountains.

Some of the things people do make landslides more likely, and we need to
find out what those things are and avoid them if possible.  Recent studies
indicate that about the worst thing you can do is run equipment in and
cut a road into the face of a slope.  OTOH, burning it or logging it 
evidently doesn't change the chances of a slide much, if at all.  However,
you need to remember that people like to put fires out, and one of the
first things they do is run a cat in and cut fire lines.  A fire line is
a lot like a rough and dirty cat road.

It's starting to look like we need to modify some of our fire fighting
techniques.  This is all new information, not something people knew 10
years ago, or even 5 years ago.

As far as the vegetation soaking up water, I have seen research on soil
infiltration.  The big culprit there is soil compaction from heavy 
equipment.  You need to confine heavy equipment operation to the smallest
area possible to avoid destroying the soil's ability to absorb and transmit

Forest operations are just a lot more complex than the general public
realizes, and what is appropriate behavior on one site might be foolish
only a mile away.  Selective harvest is generally considered more enviro
friendly than clear cutting, but selective harvest requires skidders to
cover almost every square foot of a timber harvest, doing a lot of long
term damage to the soil structure, and unless great care is taken, leaving
a gene pool of weak trees and a reservoir of disease.  In many cases, it
would be more beneficial to clear cut, replant, and accept the fact that
the site will look ugly as sin for 15 years or so.  In a clear cut you
can cable yard to a landing, and keep the equipment completely off the

> The other point that is confusing me is can government do anything to even try
> to prevent catastrophic landslides?   Again, it seems common sense that if you
> keep adding more and more stress on the land, that it will give at some time. 
> Maybe they can approve ten timber harvest plans and the logging roads that are
> needed, but what's to say the 11th would not be the one that brings it all
> down?   I mean, is the solution no roads?  Or is there no solution? 

The best solution is to prevent people from occupying the base of slide-prone
slopes.  Anywhere you see a valley with steep sides and a flat bottom that
slopes down to a stream, that valley floor came off of those mountains.
If you dig down a few feet and find small rocks instead of silt, you are
standing on the remains of a slide.  What slid before will probably slide
again someday.

I should talk.  My house is sitting on an old slide fan, from when one
whole side of a valley cut loose.  The other side of the valley is still
sitting there, just as steep, waiting to do the same.  I run the risk of
a truly catastrophic landslide every winter.  But hey, the house is 
sheltered by a monolithic outcropping 30 feet high, so it will take a
*really* big slide to get me.  :)  I guess if we have a really big rain
storm and an earthquake, they'll never find my body, though.

> Old growth certainly cannot meet society's needs for decades by itself, and
> what happens when it's all cut?  IMHO, old growth is old growth, no matter
> under whose flag it stands.  Maybe the innovations you describe and other
> processes yet to be developed will save both the old growth and the timber
> workers.  I don't see any other bright spots on future's horizon.

You're certainly right that it makes no sense to cut everything.  The 
question then is how much needs to be preserved and where?  That's a
pretty complex question, particularly if you consider the whole continent
instead of just the USA.  The boreal forests are much more fragile than
the doug fir forests down along the 45th parallel, and life is a lot
more marginal in the far north than it is in the Cascades or the Siskiyous.

In the USA, national parks and wilderness areas are exempt from logging,
and the conservation movement has a good chance of preserving the remaining
old growth in national forests and on BLM land.  

I find the Headwaters kind of issue more difficult to deal with, since
Headwaters is private property.  Of course, Hurwitz is not part of the 
management tradition that preserved that forest for long term yield.  
He's just managed to corner title to a resource that he needs to 
liquidate to bail himself out of a jam.  Twenty-four hours after the 
last logging truck rolls, both the money and the resource will be gone,
squandered by a high roller with no roots, either in the forest or the 
communities that will suffer when their resource base vanishes.

Still, I find the prospect of judging people for their stewardship of
resources to be troubling, particularly when the judges promise to
be an absentee judiciary with no roots of their own and no personal
stake in the decisions they make.  I'm afraid that I feel if the
public wants to dictate the management of Headwaters, then the public
owes Hurwitz the cash.  The residents of the small towns can lobby 
for continued logging on a sustainable basis, but if they are 
unsuccessful they will be pretty much out of luck.  If Hurwitz has
his way, the resource will be gone shortly anyway, so things look 
pretty bleak for the small towns.

The timber industry has always been feast or famine anyway.  This long
economic expansion has made us forget that, but during economic downturns
the housing market dries up, the lumber market dries up, and you
can't give away 2 x 4's on main street.  All the mills shut down, 
everybody gets laid off, and people just hope things pick up before
the bank takes the house.

> Thanks for taking the time to write, Larry.  :D  

You're a good conversationalist.

-- Larry

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