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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mudslides Happen: Clearcutting and the Timber Salvage Rider

Air Date: Week of

Jan Nunley talks with reporter Alan Siporin about the recent mudslides in the western United States and how deforestation may, or may not, have any impact on this slippery soil erosion.


NUNLEY: Mudslides have wreaked havoc in Oregon. A number of people have been killed, homes have been destroyed, cars buried and roads covered over. Many people in the Pacific Northwest blame overzealous logging for creating a situation conducive to the destructive slides. Alan Siporin covered logging issues for nearly a decade. He joins us now from the studios of KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, where he's a commentator. Alan, how severe is the situation?

SIPORIN: I don't recall any deaths from mudslides in the last 20 years and we've had 5 in just one incident a few weeks ago, and several other deaths since then as well. A survivor who managed to get out of his home described how the slide actually ripped his home off the foundation and pushed it downhill before burying it under tons of rock and mud and debris. The deaths are the most tragic part of this story but certainly not the end of it. Many homes have been destroyed or severely damaged.

NUNLEY: Many environmental activists have tried to link these slides directly to logging. How strong do you think that connection is?

SIPORIN: There have been a couple studies, one by the Forest Service and another by environmentalists. The Forest Service study was done on its lands after the mudslides we experienced last winter; that was actually in February. That study showed a much higher incidence of landslides in clear-cuts than in areas that had not been logged. Some environmentalists also conducted their own study. There data indicates that mudslides are more prevalent and of greater magnitude on hillsides where logging has occurred in the past 20 years, and that's not just clearcuts but logging in general. What's really disturbing, though, is the direct link to the mudslides that cost several people their lives. Ten years ago a state forester said logging a unit above that home where the mudslides actually occurred and people died posed a risk because of unstable soils. The state agency, however, didn't have the authority to halt the logging, because it was done on private land. Now, I think one thing that needs to be added here is that common sense tells you that roots hold soil in place and prevent erosion, and what may be less obvious to people, if you think about it, this is going to be rather clear, though, is that trees suck up a huge amount of water. If you eliminate those trees when the runoff comes, then the earth just can't hold that much, and what you have is severe erosion and eventually mudslides.

NUNLEY: Now there are some, some of these slides happen in areas where there has not been logging, and my understanding is that some of the private landowners and some of the timber industry folks are saying you see? They happen even where there are trees. What is the timber industry saying about these slides and their part, if any, in the presence of slides?

SIPORIN: Well, I think the timber industry says, you know, mudslides happen, and they are right. Mudslides always have happened. It's part of -- you know, you've got steep hillsides and it's a rainy climate and so you are going to have erosion and mudslides. And timber people say they are happening more frequently because it's been a wetter year, the wettest year in recorded history. Now I haven't heard this argument directly from timber people, but as someone who's also covered forest fires I've noticed that we have more problems with people, because more people are living in these rural areas. This is part of what's happening now. There are more people in the path of the mudslides, just as there are more people in the path of the fires.

NUNLEY: Are people calling for more logging regulations now as a result of these slides?

SIPORIN: Well certainly environmentalists are, yes. You know, the thing is that people long before the slides were calling for various numbers of reasons for an end to clear-cuts, and we thought with the Clinton forest plan that we would see the winding down of really the logging of old growth. As I think most people who follow this issue know, the salvage rider opened this whole controversy back up again for timber people to be back
in there logging some areas, some logging sales. The argument certainly could be made that in an area that's already been devastated by fire become even more susceptible for causing mudslides, if any of those areas are in steep hillsides.

NUNLEY: Now as you said, under current law most of the logging now taking place is governed by the salvage logging rider, and of course that's set to expire at the end of the year. How big a role do you think these mudslides are going to have in the reauthorization of the salvage logging rider?

SIPORIN: That's hard to say at this point. But I think that when you've got people trying to protect something like the spotted owl, although environmentalists have always argued that it's not the spotted owl as much as the owl being an indicator species, you have something where you end up pitting the working person who's losing their job against a bird. I mean, that's the argument you hear from the timber side of the equation. With the mudslides you actually have people dying, not birds but people. And now you've got people pitted against people in terms of the negative effects, the consequences of this, of the logging. Now, one might argue, those who see these mudslides as a disaster in that they're caused by timber practices, might see a silver lining in these mudslides in that this may be the amount of evidence that will tip the scales in the favor of really halting this kind of logging forever.

NUNLEY: Alan Siporin is a commentator who joins us from the studios of KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks for joining us, Alan.

SIPORIN: Thank you.



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