A Public Service Announcement From
The Light Party


WASHOUT: Officials said slides following last week's storms closed more than 40 roads in Humboldt County.

Residents say storm damage could have been avoided By Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

Stafford, Humboldt County
Early one recent morning, Michael O'Neal heard a deep rumbling sound that seemed to issue from the depths of the Earth. At first he thought it was the rain-swollen creek outside his rural Stafford Road home. But when he stepped out the door and glanced at the mountain above his house, his heart almost stopped.

Coming straight at him "faster than a man can run" was a huge wall of mud and rock, Old- growth redwood trees rode the crest of the fearsome wave like Pleistocene surfboards. "My little daughter had a friend over, and they were in the house," said O'Neal, recalling the events of December 31. "I couldn't tell which way the wave was going to cut - I could either save my daughter and her friend or run to a neighbor's house and warn him, but I couldn't do both."

Finally, the earthen avalanche veered slightly away from O'Neal's home and roared toward the neighbor's house. O'Neal ran to the house and roused the residents.

"The wave barely missed both our houses, but not everyone was so lucky," said O'Neal. Seven houses were leveled by the slide and two subsequent debris flows. Seven other homes - including O'Neal's - were damaged. The access road to the little community was obliterated. Perhaps miraculously, no one was injured.

The Stafford Road slide was only one of many slippages - albeit the most spectacular - that have bedeviled the North Coast after the recent series of storms that raised havoc from the Sierra to the San Joaquin River. There are at least 40 closures of main roads in Humboldt County. Officials estimate damage at $15 million and rising.

The damage was bad enough. But what's worse, some say, is that it could have been prevented. Stafford Road residents and environmentalists say many of the slides happened because lumber companies had completely stripped the mountains of trees, depriving the soil of both an anchor and protection from saturating rains.

"I'm not a rabid environmentalist," said O'Neal, a mobile home hauler. "I've worked as a logger myself. When you look up that slope, though, you can see that (loggers) have overdone it... It's really steep up there, and there's nothing left to stabilize the soil."

From the air, slides are readily apparent on the heavily logged land east of Scotia. Many of them are fresh and raw, strewn with jumbles of large redwood trees.

"Most of the slope above Stafford Road was logged by the Pacific Lumber Co., the firm that is embroiled in the Headwaters old-growth redwood controversy. Another local company, Barnum Timber, has also logged on the mountain.

Mary Bullwinkel, the spokeswoman for Pacific Lumber, said there is no proof that her company's logging contributed to the soil failure.

"We just don't think fingers should be pointed right now," said Bullwinkel, "The evidence isn't in. We weren't the only ones logging up there - Barnum did it too. We don't even know where the original slide started. We have a geologist who is evaluating the situation, and we'll decide what to do once we have his report."

But Elyssa Rosen, a California regional representative of the Sierra Club, said there is a serious problem in the way the state evaluates timber harvest plans. "It's legal to allow logging even if the required geology report indicates soils are unstable," she said. "Those kinds of approvals are given routinely."

Patrick Higgins, a Eureka fisheries consultant who specializes in salmon and steelhead, said logging contributes to slides in two ways.

"First, sloppily contracted logging roads - and most of the logging roads here are sloppy - can cause horrible slides in short order," said Higgins. "Second, even if a steep logged-over area is stable for a while, it will likely fail once the tree roots rot out, which can take 10 to 20 years."

Tom Spittler, the senior engineering geologist for the California Department of Conservation's division of mines and geology, said his staffers have been noticing more slides on North Coast clear-cuts in recent years.

"But we can't really say that logging is primarily responsible," said Spittler. "We do know that there is increased sliding on pine and Douglas fir clear-cuts after 10 years because the roots rot out. But redwood is a sprouting species - the roots stay viable and sent out new shoots. They don't rot, so the situation isn't really comparable."

Spittler said there is another possibility. "Because there are fewer trees to take up water in a clear-cut than in an uncut grove, it is possible that more water is available to saturate the soil, leading to slides." he said.

As for the Stafford Road slide, Spittler said he hasn't been able to gather data because the slope is still slipping.

"All we know is that it's very steep and very wet up there," he said. "We'll have to wait to evaluate evidence on logging. It's far too dangerous to send people out there right now." Meanwhile, O'Neal said neighbors feel no one is interested in their problems. "We've been trying to meet with Pacific Lumber for more than a week, and they keep brushing us off." said O'Neal. "We desperately need some help. The first slides cleaned off the mountain so it's slick as glass. Any new slides will be like bullets - much, much faster than the first ones. Living here now is like living in the barrel of a gun."

(Reprint, The San Francisco Chronicle, January 9, 1997 edition)

A Message From Da Vid, M.D., Founder of The Light Party


We urge you to work with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Senators Boxer and Feinstein, and the good people of northern California to prevent any further clear cutting of redwoods in the Headwaters ecosystem, and the surrounding environment... It is quite evident that the time is at hand to institute sustainable logging practices and prevent any further degradation of our priceless and majestic redwood forests... We thank you, the redwoods thank you, and future generations thank you...

Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.

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