Muddy waters 

Landslide leaves murky wake

State absolves Plum Creek for muddy disaster

Better a landslide than a gold mine.

For many, that's just about the only clear message gleaned from last week's catastrophe on the Blackfoot River, when nearly 200,000 cubic yards of soil collapsed down a steep bank, dumping trees, stumps and gravel into the precious waterway.

What remains muddy-outside of the ever-increasing stream of water which has carved a new channel through the debris that plugged a 200-yard stretch of the Blackfoot-are questions of the long-term impacts on the waterway and its resident fishery.

While some environmentalists continue to view the disaster as the result of generations' worth of unsound logging practices-by Champion International, Burlington Northern and the Plum Creek Timber Co. (which currently owns the land)-Montana's Department of Environmental Quality remains convinced that there is little legal blame to be laid.

Ed Thamke, manager of complaints at the DEQ, says the slide was a primarily geologic event unrelated to logging. "Mother Nature's taken her toll," his says.

Even if Plum Creek or other companies were to share the blame, Thamke adds, it would be almost impossible to prove. Citing a geologist's report that the accident likely stemmed from natural erosion, he points out that the land above the slide-which a recent tour showed to be strewn with slash piles and old stumps-hasn't been logged in years.

Despite these factors, he says, the question of responsibility is a "valid" one.

Thamke, who met this Monday with other environmental quality officers, Plum Creek officials and members of the state Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks, says the consensus is that his bureau needs to watch and wait.

"It'd be foolish to do anything right now," Thamke says. "We're headed into a high water time. We were really lucky when it came down to the timing, because it happened during a low water flow.

"So we're just going monitor it and wait to see what happens once the run off's blown through."

For Bill Haskins of Missoula's Ecology Center, the landslide doesn't resemble the mishaps he's documented on heavily roaded and logged areas on national forest lands, but it does prompt him to wonder aloud whether Plum Creek is really interested in the environmental principals it has publicly espoused recently.

Haskins, whose photos of landslides on Idaho's Clearwater National Forest were reproduced in a number of publications and displayed on the floor of Congress a couple of years back, acknowledges that the collapse of the Blackfoot cliff-high bank is different than the washouts he's seen in the past, most of which could be directly attributed to logging or flooding.

Nonetheless, the environmentalist remains critical. "It's a little bit different," Haskins says, "so it's difficult to know whether this was directly related to road building and logging. But I do think it's idiotic to be logging on that kind of unstable ground.

"Logging could easily, and probably did, play a role."

Plum Creek Vice President Mike Covey defends his company's interest in environmentally-sound timber harvesting, stating plainly that its commitment is strong. He notes that the company is doing ongoing studies to determine the role logging might have played in the avalanche, and adds that they intend to walk away better informed.

"I think it's easy to accept a simple explanation for a complex natural phenomenon," Covey says. "We're in the process of mapping landslide histories along the Blackfoot to gain a better understanding of what happened.

"If there's something we can do better, we certainly will try, but we've not made the conclusion that we need to change our practices yet."

Though he too acknowledges that landslides have historically happened on the Blackfoot, Haskins says that this latest slide should prompt the state to institute a shift in land management, particularly with an eye on "slumpy lands."

But Thamke says the DEQ is not likely to change its policies based on this incident, as officials haven't found a firm connection between land management and the landslide. Further, he says, the state will not require Plum Creek to alter its practices, in part, because the state has already concluded that the company violated no laws.

As for the future of the river, state fisheries biologist Don Peters believes that there are potential overall benefits. In particular, Peters says, the new channels and increased timber in the stream should add to habitat diversity. Additionally, though silt from the slide remains a concern, he says that worries over the indigenous bull trout, who travel vast distances to spawn, and cutthroat in that stretch of the Blackfoot have been over-stated.

"We don't really see either of those species moving through this area," Peters says, "so I don't think migration is going to be a factor."

Peters adds that, barring the need to remove trees for safety reasons, he hopes that most of the wood can remain in the stream, where it will allow for the reconfiguration of channels and provide much needed shade that trout prefer.

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