Land-Use Policies Worsened Flood Damage in Northwest

Land-Use Policies Worsened Flood Damage in Northwest
reprinted from
The People
February 10, 1996

LAND-USE POLICIES WORSENED FLOOD DAMAGE IN NORTHWEST

BY CHARLES TURNER

Very heavy rains fell over western Washington and parts of Oregon during the last seven days of November. In spite of frantic efforts to shore up dikes and place sandbags by many of the people who live along or near the rivers in this area, plus many volunteers who came from other areas, there were hundreds of homes flooded so much that the owners had to evacuate them and seek emergency shelter. The raging waters totally destroyed many homes and washed out a number of roads. Some bridges were damaged so badly that they need to be replaced. In eastern Washington, parts of the Burlington Northern railroad track in Snohomish County (the main rail line connecting Seattle and Spokane) were made useless by washouts.

Over a period of perhaps 100 or more years, as the demand for lumber and pulp wood for paper products, and later, plywood, kept growing, the timber capitalists figured that the quickest way to make a profit was to log off the land closest to the rivers. The trees could easily be floated down the river to a sawmill near the mouth of the river. Once the trees were cut down and the stumps removed from properties along these rivers, the owners could then advertise: "Choice riverfront property for sale," and it would fetch a premium price on the real estate market. The next owners of such property would not plant trees to make any new forest. Wanting a quick return on their investment, they would use it for, say, a dairy farm, or for growing some seasonal crop that would provide a quick cash return.

A typical forest of old-growth evergreen trees of the type found in Washington and Oregon will have a mix of fir, cedar, hemlock and pine, with some alder in places where the other trees are not very close together. The soil in such a forest will be very porous, like a sponge. After the trees have been removed and the land has been used for dairy farms or for seasonal crops, the soil loses its original spongy nature. Then, after a heavy rainfall, particularly one warm enough to melt any snow that fell before, the rivers will fill up immediately.

The photos in the local newspapers of the flooded areas clearly indicate that the land next to the rivers has been used for farms, and has relatively few trees.

A far more logical way to manage this western Washington land would be to maintain a dense forest in zones on both sides of a river about a mile in width, and cut down for lumber and paper products only SOME of the trees in the areas one mile or more from the rivers. Certainly no clear-cutting should be done. Making roads to essential bridges across the rivers would not require the removal of very many trees next to a river.

Unfortunately, capitalism is still the system under which we are trying to live. The aggressive ambitions of the capitalists to get big profits, and quickly, and the pressures the few remaining family farmers are under to compete, preclude any possible consideration of more sensible land-use policies. A land-use policy effective in preventing floods and minimizing damage caused by heavy precipitation requires a socialist reconstruction of society.