Monday, April 14, 2014

Looking Disaster In The Face

You can call me a Tar Heel now except for when it comes to basketball (I’m a Duke fan.)  Three thousand miles away, I also have ties to the area around Oso, downstream from the location of the tragic mudslide on March 22nd where recovery efforts continue.

I have several connections.  My great-aunt and her family had a dairy farm a few miles west and one of my sisters and brothers-in-law live about 40 miles south in that county in a town called Mill Creek.

After living in Durham for the past twenty-five years, I’m earning my stripes as an adopted Tar Heel, a pejorative nickname historically given to North Carolinians but now proudly embraced.

In the area of the Pacific Northwest mudslide, anyone from the southern Appalachian Mountains refers to themselves as Tar Heels even if they are from Kentucky, West Virginia or Tennessee.

But those around Darrington and Oso really did migrate there from North Carolina, dating back to the late 1930s and early 1940s, moonshine and all.

Most came from around Sylva, NC, located along a range of mountains in the Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachians.  They were loggers who worked for companies that during the 1800s had clear cut much of the Blue Ridge without any provisions for sustainability.

They greatly objected first to the creation of the Nantahala National Forest in 1920 and again when philanthropists and residents of both North Carolina and Tennessee pushed for creation of the Great Smoky National Park dedicated in 1940.

Many may have been evicted, but all mourned a lost livelihood and of course blamed government rather than unsustainable logging practices.

They picked up and relocated to the remote area of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest, a far corner of the United States where logging companies were again clear cutting huge swaths of old growth forests along the Puget Sound.

In fact, many of the first volunteers who began digging for survivors after the mudslide were loggers.

Before the recent mudslide the area was best known for a bluegrass music festival, but back when I was recruited to Durham, it was even better known as the epicenter for a bitter controversy surrounding preservation of the endangered Northern Spotted Owl.

It was one of those topics my Dad and I agreed to skirt whenever I visited him in his home in Kirkland, Washington, which overlooked Lake Washington, another ten miles south of the mudslide from my sister’s home.

This species of owl was being pushed to the brink of extinction by loss of old growth habitat so an agreement was brokered by President Clinton to set aside 7 million acres in strands from the Canadian border south.

But the owls had been permanently embedded as a scapegoat even though systemic issues within the logging industry had set in motion dramatic job losses 40 years earlier.

The bumper-sticker slogan, “owls,” is ready made for partisan politics.  More tragic than the owls or jobs though is that the mudslide was caused by clear cutting.  Tree roots enable the soils of that area to hold or absorb the significant rainfall in that region.

Much of it they transport back into the atmosphere.  Clear cutting occurred just above the mudslide area about ten years ago.  The mudslide was not “an act of God.”

In a New York Times op-ed, Timothy Egan, a pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author of several books involving humans and natural disasters, reminds us that a few years ago a federal survey documented that over a thirty-year period, 50% of the Deer Creek watershed above Oso had been logged.

Run off from this particular clear cut area can be traced down to the 600’ ridge that became supersaturated and having melted gave way that Saturday to a 60 mph wall of mud and debris that buried the homes for a mile or more below.

It isn’t clear why in this day and age selective cutting wasn’t used or why replanting didn’t occur immediately or why it appears to have exceeded legal limits.  These days everyone should know better, and no one knows better than loggers.

It will be interesting if, like the “coal ash” spills in North Carolina recently, there is a lot of finger pointing or as is likely here, a finding of corruption between special interests and regulators.

One thing is for sure, there will be a lot of finger pointing before the ultimate cause is found and safeguards put in place.

My bet is that the underlying cause will not be too little or too much regulation but special interest politics, a form of legal corruption, that undermines enforcement.

As Egan opines, “It is human nature, if not the American way, to look potential disaster in the face and prefer to see a bright and shining lie.”

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