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Disaster leads to chance for giant park in Whatcom County

One of the things washed away in a 1983 flood was the rationale for maintaining state ownership of 8,400 acres at Lake Whatcom. But now some question whether the county can afford to take back the land.
Some of the damage from the 1983 Smith Creek landslide at Lake Whatcom.

Some of the damage from the 1983 Smith Creek landslide at Lake Whatcom. Tore Ofteness

Circles indicate the location of the new 8400-acre Whatcom County Park. The boundaries cover much of Stewart and Lookout Mountains in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

Circles indicate the location of the new 8400-acre Whatcom County Park. The boundaries cover much of Stewart and Lookout Mountains in the Lake Whatcom watershed. Courtesy of Conservation Northwest

Barbara Snow was alone in her home by the lake on that January morning. She awoke at 5 o'clock to a terrifying scraping and hammering at the sides of her house. She opened the door to her carport to see what was going on. Tons of muddy, ice-cold water rushed into the house. In moments the water was chest high and she was struggling in the darkness to get out.

"I thought I was dying," Snow recalled last month. "I started to feel warm and at peace with everything. I began to see happy scenes from when I was a little girl.

"I thought to myself, I've always been late for everything, am I going to be on time for my death? For some reason this struck me as very funny, and I came to my senses."

Snow had been told in avalanche-survival courses to "swim with it, not against it." Swimming with the debris-filled torrent of Smith Creek, she managed to force herself onto the porch next door, to pound the door and scream. She and her neighbors, Joan and Loren Webb, huddled in the remains of the Webbs' wrecked house for three hours before being rescued, while the remains of Snow's house washed into Lake Whatcom.

It was Jan. 11, 1983. The landslide that destroyed homes along the shore of Lake Whatcom and sent some 80 acres of mud, logs and timber slash into the lake, was a sadly familiar story. Bad logging on private and state-owned land, poorly built logging roads and a record rainstorm created debris flows on Stewart Mountain, above the lake. Logs and slash flowed down Smith Creek to pile up behind a county bridge. The result, as documented by professional photographer Tore Ofteness of Bellingham, was appalling. The debris dam burst and sent water and logs roaring through the neighborhood.

The havoc energized the community to protect Lake Whatcom and the surrounding hillsides. The citizen-based groups Conservation Northwest and Whatcom Land Trust organized public pressure to have the land set aside in a timber and wildlife preserve.

Twenty-six years after the Smith Creek disaster, it's happening. Under a land transfer agreement between the county and the state Department of Natural Resources, the land becomes what may be the state's largest county park: 8,400 acres of timbered hills, within easy bicycle distance of Bellingham.

If you're running a county that has a hole the size of a few million dollars in its budget, it could seem like a foolish time to take on a huge new park. But County Executive Pete Kremen and most Whatcom County Council members see it as a way of preventing landslides and protecting Lake Whatcom — the drinking water source for some 90,000 people in and around Bellingham. The council voted in late November to find the $291,000 required to pay for the handoff of the 8,400 acres from DNR to Whatcom County. The payment — it works out to about $36 an acre — covers DNR's cost of adjusting boundaries and having the timber appraised so that it knows what it's giving away.

How big is 8,400 acres? You could drop all of Seattle's city parks in there and have 2,000 acres around the edges. You could call it 36 Seattle Arboretums. Or think of it as 16 Discovery Parks.

The land transfer calls up some Depression-era history. This was privately owned land — in 40-acre to 620-acre chunks — that was logged, mistreated, and disdained by its owners in the 1930s, then taken by Whatcom County for nonpayment of taxes. Counties all over the state were doing the same in those years. But counties were not in the timber business and could see no return in keeping the land, so the Washington Legislature let the DNR take over these lands and manage them for the counties, keep them in timber, sell the logs, and use the revenue to support such local necessities as schools and fire districts.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Dec 8, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Bob
An excellent piece. Thanks

KK

Posted Tue, Dec 8, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

What's the revenue loss to the state from this transfer? These timber sales support higher ed. Why no compensation by county to the state's citizens' for their forever economic loss?

Posted Tue, Dec 8, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

DocMaynard,

As I understand it, the lands being transferred didn't produce any funds for the higher education trust, nor for other statewide trusts. These were formerly county lands, transferred to the DNR in the 1930's. The revenue gained from timber sales went to small trusts inside the county, for fire districts, school districts, flood control districts and the like. The County and DNR worked out settlements with all of them or are in that process now. the land won't be transferred until those settlements are complete. Most are small amounts and one -- the Mt. Baker School District, which I referenced in the piece -- is significant.

Posted Thu, Dec 10, 12:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting piece of good news. Lake Whatcom is "source of Bham's water." Apparently some comes from the Middle Fork Nooksack first? Perhaps the author could explain the mechanics of the system some time.

Posted Fri, Dec 11, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Here is a comment and rebuttal sent to the editor from Bob Dick of the American Forest Resource Council in Olympia:

Dear Editor:
I take strong exception to the misleading nature of the below article and references to the ‘83 and ‘07 floods, both of which occurred during my career as a professional forester.

The 1983 rain-on-snow event was a disaster focused on a small piece of geography in which a rain cell stalled over the Lake Whatcom vicinity and caused substantial damage and one fatality. Part of the damage was caused by old logging roads left behind from original timber harvest; some damage occurred in watersheds where roads remained in place and some damage occurred in areas never harvested. The impact, in part, caused DNR, the forest industry, tribes and the environmental community to create a system to identify and fix, “orphan roads,” to minimize recurrence of the man-related 83 flood damage. Subsequent forest practices changes, and ongoing changes go even further to ensure roads stay affixed to hillsides. The effort is ongoing and appears successful.

Your reference to Lewis County points out a parallel meteorological event. The December 2007 storm stalled over western Lewis County, and dumped up to 20” inches of rain on snow covered hillsides with predictable results. Hillsides failed, several in spectacular fashion. Scientists continue to examine the 2007 event to glean lessons from what happened and why. One immutable lesson is that unusual weather events predictably cause geologic failures in both natural and managed forests.

To imply that creating a park will stop gravity and water from doing what they do is irresponsible. Lake Whatcom, for example, experiences slides since the last glaciation. An enormous debris fans nearly cuts the lake in half at one point. Other debris fans bear witness to continued geologic, hydrologic and gravity born processes that make little hills out of big hills.

Not only does Whatcom County propose to take on a maintenance hog; it assumes significant liability. The proposed park removes revenue generation needed to help ensure roads are maintained to minimize the opportunity of road-related impacts to the area. To imply a park will stop a geologically active watershed is misleading at best; at worst, it is a falsehood that creates complacency.

The forest industry lawsuit you reference tries to slow the juggernaut long enough to separate fact from fantasy. Ironically, an environmental impact statement would have displayed the good, the bad and the ugly of the proposed action but county leaders killed that idea. Too bad the author didn’t explore that action…

I believe the park is bad public policy but that is a decision for the citizens of Whatcom County. Citizens, however, deserve much better than they got from this article in their quest for reliable information on which to make an important decision.

Bob Dick
Washington Manager, American Forest Resource Council

Posted Fri, Dec 11, 2:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Bob Dick seems to be saying we need to log and build logging roads in our drinking watershed in order to generate revenue to maintain and minimize impacts from logging roads. County Executive Pete Kremen is wise to see this as a fallacy, and that’s why he’s proposed restoring these steep areas to old growth forest.

Logging and logging roads dramatically increase landslide risk. Removing trees increases the amount of rain hitting the ground and water running along the surface. Roads intercept and concentrate that surface water, and landslides can be triggered by this water. Bob Dick mentions that part of the problem was rain falling on snow, but he doesn't explain that rain on snow is a phenomenon exacerbated by clearcuts. Snow accumulates more in clearcuts than in forests, and when a Pineapple Express dumps rain, the snow quickly melts. In logged areas there are less mature trees to anchor slopes, and more roads with ditches where flowing water is concentrated and erosion can begin triggering landslides.

Bob Dick is right that there are efforts underway to reduce landslides triggered by logging. However, the Landscape Plan still allows clearcuts up to 100 acres, no buffers on small wetlands, roads and clearcuts on potentially unstable slopes, and would still lead to the building of more than 40 miles of new roads. Considering these lands are within elevations that frequently see rain on snow, and some of these lands receive double the amount of rain that other parts of the watershed do, it is vitally important that we do everything we can to reduce the risk of landslides.

And Bob is also correct that road maintenance helps reduce landslides, but in a sensitive area like this, it’s far more efficient to stop building more roads and to remove old roads. Under this proposal, 20 miles of new logging road building will be avoided, and many current roads will be removed. The forests will be restored to old-growth for future generations. Restoration of 25% of the watershed to a more natural, more mature hydrologic function will reduce risk and protect the source of our drinking water.

Seth Cool
Conservation Northwest

SethCool

Posted Fri, Dec 11, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

 In response to Bob Dick’s comments on my Lake Whatcom park piece:
I respect Mr. Dick’s experience as a professional forester. It’s pretty hard
to quarrel with his observation that Lake Whatcom has been experiencing
landslides since the last glaciation, long before any human effect and that
“debris fans bear witness to...processes that make little hills out of big
hills.”
    At the same time, I would not expect him to deny that forest canopies
and roots in the ground reduce the frequency of these debris flows, or that
logging roads are the common breakout point for slides.  The Department of
Natural Resources has increasingly acknowledged the effects of logging on
steep, highly erodable slopes. It seems clear that this recognition leads to
more stringent, more careful selection of what to harvest and what to leave
alone. Those decisions would seem to be a logical factor in DNR’s
cooperation with Whatcom County in creating the proposed park.

Posted Fri, Dec 11, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

The claim by Mr. Dick that current forest practices ensure forest roads stay affixed to hillsides appears to be successful is not entirely supported with the observed evidence. It is exceedingly difficult in mountain terrain to build roads that avoid unstable slopes in order to access timber. Setting the appropriate standards for logging road construction and maintenance on unstable slopes is a challenge. I believe that newer forest practices have reduced the previous forest management associated slope failures and debris flows. But the new rules do not eliminate forest road related slope failures.

Weather events do cause landslides, but the frequency of slope failures and scale of the failures has been and still is currently greatly increased by forest practices. Of the 1,824 landslides identified by the DNR from the December 2007 landslides in southwest Washington, 1,295 of the failures took place associated with roads or within harvests younger than 15 years. Only 4 took place in forest stands older than 50 years.

It takes a big weather event to trigger landslides and debris flows even if poorly designed logging roads and clear cuts contribute to the slope failures. Calling these events unusual however, should be questioned. There have been numerous weather events in Whatcom County since 1983 that have triggered slope failures associated with logging road and forest practices.

The most recent event in January 2009 and the associated slope failures are telling. Nearly all of the failures were associated with past timber practices including sites where timber practices had taken place since new forest practice rules touted by the forest industry were followed. The failures took place in areas in close proximity to the Lake Whatcom watershed including on the east side of Mount Stewart which abuts Lake Whatcom. Very little timber management has taken place in the Lake Whatcom watershed since 1983 and interesting enough no notable slides took place in the watershed beyond some very small scale failures. Hence, the west side of Mt Stewart had no landslides of note while the east side had multiple property damaging failures in areas where recent timber practices have been implemented as well as multiple failures that did not damage neighboring properties but can be readily observed from the South Fork Nooksack River valley.

The January 2009 weather event certainly does not take place on a frequent basis; however, there have been similar type weather events in Whatcom County over the past 50 years. Landslides took place on recent harvest areas on Mount Stewart in 2004 as well. And a March 2007 storm caused landslides on a new harvest on the west side of Sumas Mountain.

Mr. Dick's statement that Lake Whatcom is nearly cut in half by a debris fan is completely false. With the exception of Smith Creek and Olsen Creek the alluvial fans in the watershed are barely discernable on a map and neither fan associated with those streams comes remotely close to cutting the lake in half. The Smith Creek fan may extend approximately 1/7th of the way across the lake. Furthermore the predominant deposits on these fans are alluvial versus debris.

In terms of water quality, the Washington State Department of Ecology recently completed a review of Washington Forest Practices for compliance with the Clean Water Act and concluded that the current Forest Practices adoptive management for meeting the Clean Water Act was deficient in numerous areas and little progress had been made in adoptive management for meeting water quality assurance outside a limited number of areas.

Keeping the slopes forested, without the impacts of logging and logging roads, does much to limit the frequency and magnitude of damaging landslides. The occurrence of more frequent and larger landslides and debris flows causes a significant increase of episodic phosphorus loading in Lake Whatcom well above natural conditions.

While forest practices have improved, geologists and foresters still sometimes get it wrong when assessing slope stability and even small drainage failures can lead to large landslides. Assessing risk is a risky business. Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen should be supported in reducing the risk to those living at the base of these steep slopes and for reducing the risk of damage to the source of half of Whatcom County’s drinking water.

Dan McShane

Posted Fri, Dec 11, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

By the way - the article was very well done and appreciated.

Posted Sat, Dec 12, 3:31 p.m. Inappropriate

This will be a remarkable park once completed and is also part of a swath of undeveloped lands that stretch from the coast to Mt. Baker. Once the trail is connected, this will be an incredible low elevation, nearly year-round hiking experience. In addition to the great benefits to people, the timberlands targeted for this forest preserve above Lake Whatcom are currently home to endangered marbled murrelets, providing us a fantastic opportunity to expand habitat on public lands.

To clarify a few things:

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

An EIS has been conducted on a no logging alternative for these lands. Mr. Dick even attended a workshop I put on to discuss the alternatives in about 2003. This EIS was part of the landscape plan process under Doug Sutherland's DNR. I'd encourage Mr. Dick and others to take another look at the PDEIS, the DEIS and the FEIS to see what the benefits of not logging the area are.

How many EIS's does the timber industry wish the public to pay for in order to not log public land in a public watershed?

The Revenues from Logging

It's worth taking a look at the financial analysis DNR conducted as part of that EIS. The revenue for logging these County Forest Board lands is divided a number of ways. First, DNR takes a chunk off the top for their work. In 2003 that was 22%, now it's 25%. Of the monies that remain, they're divided up exactly as if the timber harvest was paying property taxes: a big portion goes to the state, another big portion to the county road fund, county general fund, the local school district, port, etc. In the analysis DNR determined that under existing logging rules, and with timber prices in 2001 - 2002, that the Mt. Baker School District would get about $30,000 a year for bond repayment from logging in a municipal watershed. It's a bad trade, pitting about $30,000 a year for bond payments for a school against public safety and clean drinking water. Here's a page where you can read more details from the financial section of the 2003 DEIS: http://www.conservationnw.org/files/DNR-Table-11doc-%20revised.pdf

Liability

These are county lands managed by DNR and as I understand it, the county has the liability now. So when landslides devastated our community in 1983, and the DNR settled out of court for something like $5 million (in 1986 dollars), that money was deducted from the revenues produced by future Whatcom County Forest Board lands. It takes a lot of logging to pay off that kind of financial hit. It's easy to see that the liability is reduced when the risk is reduced. We reduce the risk when we stop building roads across potentially unstable slopes and logging on steep slopes above Lake Whatcom. We're hearing the liability argument lately and it simply doesn't hold water since Whatcom County is liable when they're logged or not. Since we're liable, better to reduce the risk and control it!

Maintenance Costs

This summer, on the hottest day in Bellingham in recorded history, all of us water drinkers received a robocall from the mayor saying that our treatment plant was at a crisis stage. We had to immediately cut down on all water use because too much algae was clogging the filter. It's a long explanation, how logging leads to algae in the watershed, but it contributes to the problem. A new filtration system is an expensive solution relative to doing what we can to reduce the problem in the first place. Putting 8,000 or more acres into a forested reserve - old growth in time - goes a long way towards reducing the costs of providing clean drinking water to a large community.

So the cost of acquiring the land is literally free - the county owns it - we simply pay a small amount for the transfer. In time, as we can afford it, we convert the old logging roads into narrower trails. It strikes me as the bargain of the century.

Bob - thank you for an exceptional article on a complicated topic.

Posted Sat, Dec 12, 8:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Snoqualman wrote:
"....Lake Whatcom is "source of Bham's water." Apparently some comes from the Middle Fork Nooksack first?..."

The lake is indeed the sole source reservoir for the drinking water for over 95,000 people. The City of Bellingham operates the treatment plant for potable water, capturing it from the reservoir (lake). See http://PFLW.org

The mechanics of the water source system are simple. Now, all the water in the Reservoir comes from runoff over the lands directly surrounding the body of water - the natural watershed.

In past years, there was some water diverted from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River into the reservoir. None has flowed from there in over a year, I am told by the City. And it appears likely that none will come from there in the future - for a set of reasons not related to this Park situation.

Posted Sun, Dec 13, 2:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the info. Good comments. Care to share those unrelated reasons as to why no more Nooksack water?

One suggestion to all: use the word "cut" instead of the industry's euphemism "harvest," with its overtones of honest toil and peasant life. Score a big one for the industry in getting people who should know better to use the H word.

Posted Sun, Dec 13, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Snoqualman - the diversion dam on the middle fork of the Nooksack was put in place to provide the additional water that Georgia-Pacific required. That need is gone.

This antiquated diversion dam was damaged in a flood a couple of years ago and seems not to have been repaired. Prior to that the water diversion was curtailed by the need to keep water in the river for salmon.

The existing dam is a problem: it blocks salmon from accessing 12 - 14 miles of quality habitat upriver. Unfortunately, despite ongoing work by the Nooksack Tribe and Conservation Northwest to get access past the dam for salmon, it's not happened.

To add to what Marian has said, some of the water in Lake Whatcom comes from runoff and some comes from groundwater filtered through the forest.

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