Monday, February 28, 2011

Coal Terminal Preemptive Strike

BNSF rail line south of Bellingham with created backwater lagoon 
BNSF rail line south of Bellingham with siding on an otherwise single track line

My post on coal terminals in Washington State had a number of readers sent to it by John Stark's Bellingham Herald Political blog. Mr. Stark has been covering the issue of a proposed coal terminal site at Cherry Point for the Bellingham Herald and had written an article in Tuesday's paper. The article was about some elected officials supporting the terminal.  Its a bit hard to call it proposed at this point as there is yet to be any application submitted to evaluate. But it is my understanding that the investors are considering a 25 million ton per year facility for shipping coal to Asia markets. If this is the size of the Cherry Point facility, it is 5 times larger than the officially proposed coal terminal in Longview.

Rail transport, CO2 and fragmenting of the project review are being challenged to the State Shorelines Hearings Board for the proposed Longview coal terminal. In Longview, the Cowitz County Planning Department determined there would be no significant impact from the proposed 5.7 million ton per year coal terminal. The CO2 emissions and transportation impacts along the rail route were not included in the permit review nor were the dredging and pier work which will be reviewed under a US Army Corp permit. An added part of the appeal will be that the appellants obtained documents that the corporation was considering not a 5 million ton facility but a 60 million ton facility. Washington State has intervened in the case over the CO2 emissions. Washington State has set a goal of reducing CO2 emissions and that is the State's basis for intervening.

Thus far the Cherry Point project in northwest Washington has consisted of a PR (public relations) campaign to line up early support for the project by influential people. The mayors of Ferndale and Lynden are enthusiastic supporters with their pictures and quotes on full page newspaper adds. The mayor of Bellingham has added his conditional support with concerns about the rail traffic through Bellingham.

But at this point no application has been submitted or any public documents regarding specific plans or impacts or mitigation of those impacts. The concept of the PR campaign is to build support ahead of time. In that regard the Cherry Point coal terminal proponents have been fairly successful getting influential people to be supportive and they certainly got the local daily paper editorial page folks on board.

There is more to this type of strategy than simply getting support. Large complex projects with wide ranging impacts often involve public process. Getting influential people behind a project early can be a way of tamping down objections not only at the pubic level but within the permitting process itself. This approach puts added pressure on permit review staff to not push as hard as they otherwise might. Of course pressure the other way from citizens concerned about impacts might pressure permit review staff to push harder for mitigation. Reviewing permit applications in a politically charged environment can not be a particularly easy task, particularly when higher ups have apparently already decided a project is good or bad before any review has taken place. I have been in a similar position as a consultant on a few occasions - causes one to choose words very carefully when writing reports or speaking.    

The Bellingham Herald published an editorial Sunday in support of the Cherry Point project. The Herald touts the jobs that the project would create. The Herald editorial was well in keeping with creating a bit of political or community pressure. In the editorial the Herald complains "Already some members in the community have filed complaints about the proposed terminal - everything from environmental impacts, to increased train traffic..." I'm not sure where complaints are "filed" when there is no project application. 

The Herald then added "We hope Whatcom County's strong anti-development community will set aside a penchant for grandstanding and filing lawsuits," and "Rather than holding protests, let's sit down at the table and work to get the project built". A bit of a preemptive verbal strike at anyone that might ask "What about...?" The Herald leaves the impression that lots of grandstanding, lawsuits and protests accompany any development project in Whatcom County. Having been involved in a variety of local issues involving development, I have not seen any protests. It appears that making public comments is the Herald's definition of grandstanding. In regards to lawsuits, that is sometimes part of the public process particularly when project proponents do not address all impacts and through political pressure get government officials to ignore the issues as well. But I will add, that at my count there have been far more lawsuits filed in Whatcom County by developers than anti development people. 
If the Cherry Point coal terminal proponents bring forward a project that mitigates the train traffic impacts, fishery impacts, and CO2 impacts being raised on the Longview project they will have a significant leg up on obtaining an unchallenged permit. But at this point it is impossible for this project to be assessed as no application and proposed mitigation plans have been submitted for public review. But Cherry Point proponents have thus far put together a very impressive PR campaign.

But do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a good PR campaign. A few years ago another project at Cherry Point was being touted - a natural gas power plant. That project also had a significant PR campaign, but part of the PR campaign involved listening to concerns ahead of time. The project application addressed the concerns raised by local citizens and in the end sailed through the permitting process. A very similar project proposed in Sumas had a strong PR campaign and chose to ignore a slate of impacts raised early on by the community. That application had the dubious honor of being the first power plant proposal ever turned down by the State panel that reviewed the application.

Not everyone is a fan of the rail road

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Take on the Snow Cast

White caps in Bellingham bay from Fraser outflow winds

It was a bit chilly for field work yesterday with high wind from Arctic air rushing out of the Fraser Valley into the western Washington lowlands. In Bellingham it was sunny all day Thursday as the Arctic air pushed out the marine air and dried things out. It was comfortable out of the wind, but rather harsh particularly when the topography focused the wind. I was fairly close to home looking at a slope area in Bellingham. The view above was looking toward the north. But to the south the sky had a decidedly different look.

View south near Chuckanut Bay

While Bellingham had about 2 inches of snow, areas a few miles south near Mount Vernon had well over a foot. The Skagit Valley area had had convergence snow the day before and then had another round Wednesday and Thursday. 

Cliff Mass put up a post today in response to apparent criticisms of snow forecasting how-good-or-bad-was-snow-forecast. As regular reader of weather forecasts and models for field work planning, and the fact that I am not a member of the professional weather fraternity I will say the weather forecast was very good for this event. The National Weather Service out of Seattle consistently said that the snow would be spotty and in bands with heavy snow in convergence areas and little elsewhere and that predicting exactly where was not certain at all. Even with that I thought the NWS was reasonably close in where the heavy snow was most likely. All said I give them high marks.  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christchurch Moments After the Quake

Christchurch, New Zealand moments after the quake

Not sure who took the picture, but I got the above via Callan Bentley. For a geology of the seismic zone Chris Rowan did a very nice write up

There is a cadre of geologists that have blogs and provide up to date geology content a bit faster than peer reviewed journal articles. Thanks Callan and Rowan. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

PSCZ and Josh Ritter comments on Washington

Puget Sound Convergence Zone. Band of green shows rain/snow refection on radar
Image from Cliff Mass Weather Blog

I drove to Seattle yesterday through the convergent zone snow over north Seattle and then encountered a rather intense band of convergence zone snow on the way back home late last night north of Marysville. The Convergence Zone is a local northern Puget Sound weather phenomenon where air moving up from the south through the Puget lowlands encounters air wrapping around the Olympic Mountains from the north. The collision causes uplift and a band of rain, or if cold enough, snow. The CZ is a narrow band of cloudy weather and heavy precipitation well known to western Washington weather junkies. Anyone making the Interstate-5 drive between Bellingham and Seattle routinely knows that the band is narrow. So last night despite very bad visibility and very hard snow, I knew it would only last a few miles and 10 miles later we were out of the snow with starry skies. 

More of the same today with the added factor of Fraser outflow winds from the northeast bringing in a pulse of Arctic air. As the cold leading edge of the Fraser Arctic air pushes south into the moist air coming into the sound from the west and south, a band of heavy snow will fall. The sky to the south of Bellingham is dark and lots of snow in parts of Skagit County - a client of mine reported 6 inches, but only a few flakes so far in Bellingham with a breeze from the north.

The purpose of my Seattle trip was to see Josh Ritter at the Show Box. Josh grew up on the edge of the Washington landscape near Moscow, Idaho near the Washington border so he knows a few things about the Washington landscape. Apparently he had a bit of an adventure getting over Snoqualmie Pass yesterday as the pass was closed for a period of time due to heavy mountain snow.

Josh had a few funny lines about our landscape and what we value between songs:

He described driving to Washington State and crossing a subtle boundary between where taxidermy is prevalent to where it disappears and where coffee goes from terrible to OK to good.

He introduced another song by saying we would make Tacoma jealous.

His song Thin Blue Line mentions a place he calls Royal City and his band is called The Royal City Band derived from the reference in the song. I'm not sure Josh was singing about Washington States' Royal City, but he did mention it during the show.

A line from his song Harrisburg might fit yesterday's post on rail and coal "I believe the Garden of Eden was burned to make way for a train".

A song Josh Ritter did not play last night, but a favorite of mine might apply for those thinking of spring on this cold February day.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Coal Terminals in Washington State

In the early 1700s English explorers on the Pacific Northwest coast obtained otter pelts from First Nations peoples in exchange for goods very highly valued by the First Nations peoples, but of little value to the Europeans. The otter pelts fetched highly valuable china from the Chinese which in turn amounted to huge profits for the investors when sold back in England. This round-the-world trade route involving otter pelts from the northwest had a profound impact on the politics and commerce of the Pacific Northwest long before settlement by English and Americans took place.

China may not be currently that interested in otter pelts, but the Chinese are very interested in energy. The Chinese are apparently interested in American coal. And some very large international energy companies are very interested in selling coal. The United States has been described as the Saudi Arabia of coal. This may be a severe understatement. While there is active coal mining in the Centralia area of Washington, the big mines are in Montana and Wyoming. Getting coal to China from Montana or Wyoming means getting the coal via rail lines to deep water ports that have land available for storing and loading coal. For mining areas in Wyoming and Montana that means the lower Columbia River or deep water ports of Puget Sound or the Salish Sea. Indeed I have seen a lot more mile long coal trains heading across the Skagit flats and along the water of Chuckanut and Bellingham Bays. These trains are heading to Robert's Banks just north of the US-Canadian border where there is a large coal shipping and container shipping facility. However, the Robert's Bank facility is nearly at capacity so other sites for new coal loading facilities are being considered. Most of the coal that arrives at Robert's Bank is via rail from coal mining areas in eastern British Columbia and Alberta. For coal trains from the United States the challenge is restrictive rail routes. There is of course the international border issue, but rail shipping relies on rail lines that must negotiate urban areas of western Washington and very limited track availability and periodically long delays as several sections of the rail are closed by landslides on a nearly yearly basis.

Hence, coal terminals in Washington State are being considered with one in the permitting stages currently. The coal terminal issue in Washington State has become big news with in depth articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The issues are both intensely local and intensely global.

The subject has interested me as I have been involved in reviewing geologic conditions on rail line projects and large shipping terminal projects as a geologist. So I decided to take a tour of the coal terminal sites and schemes so I did a little Google Earth tour.

Robert's Bank pier.
The pier to the south is the BC Ferry Terminal for ferry service to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Note the lower half of Point Roberts extends down into the United States, an oddity from the border being set at 49 degrees latitude.

Robert's Bank coal and container shipping terminals. The length of the coal storage area is 1 kilometer.

Ship being loaded. Ship is 750 feet long

Robert's bank and two potential terminal sites

The possible new coal terminal sites are limited. It takes deep water ports with rail access. This criteria has very much defined the shaping of the Washington landscape since rail lines began to extend into the Pacific Northwest. Millennium Bulk Logistics a coal shipping company approached the Port of Tacoma a port that meets this criteria, but the Port of Tacoma declined the option of being a coal terminal. I suspect that this was in part based on the fact the Port of Tacoma is already a major container shipper and was not keen on a speculative and contentious proposal that might interfere with the existing shipping facilities.

The lower Columbia River has long been a shipping center with multiple deep water shipping terminals along the lower river. Access from inland areas is via major rail lines along the banks of the Columbia River, an Interstate Highway on the south bank of the river, and barge traffic that allows shipping all the way to Idaho. Portland Oregon is the major city of the lower river, but terminals for shipping are located at many sites along the maintained river channel. The broad plains along the lower river bank allow for bulk shipping terminals and there has been a long history of bulk shipping at facilities on the lower Columbia shipping logs, lumber, wheat, bauxite and aluminum.

At the present time there is a proposal to build a coal terminal near Longview, Washington is in the works. The Cowitz County Commission approved the project, but the project has been appealed to the State Shoreline Appeals Board challenging the lack of review regarding the impacts of mining, impacts to energy markets and impacts to carbon dioxide emissions. The State of Washington Department of Ecology has stepped into the case as an intervenor noting that the train traffic alone will push up Washington State's CO2 emissions at a time when the State has set a goal of reducing CO2. The State intervening is an interesting twist as the State is ultimately responsible for any shoreline permit. The proposed Longview project is a huge project. The proposal is to ship 5 million tons of coal per year; however, corporate records tracked down by one of the appellants indicate an interest to later expand to 60 million tons per year. To get a sense if one can of the CO2 output, 5 million tons of coal equates to the CO2 emitted from 2 million cars in one year. As of this writing this potential expansion is creating pressure in Longview for the County Commissioners to reverse their prior approval with the local paper, the Columbian asking for the approval to be pulled.

Longview on the lower Columbia River, The river flows from right to left

Closed aluminum plant site proposed for coal shipping

View of part of the Longview industrial waterfront from the Oregon side of the river.
Note that industrial shipping sites are located on the Oregon side of the river as well.

Highway 30 bridge at Longview high above the water to allow ship passage

The CO2 issue has garnered a lot of attention with in depth articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Big financial forces and global politics are colliding in Washington State. Lots of international interests in a profitable venture. In a way the issue is not so different when international trade collided with the economies and traditions of the First Nations coastal tribes in the 1700s. The values of the First nations peoples caught suddenly caught up in international trade were disrupted. Washington State has set a policy of reducing CO2 emissions. That policy and the state's role in global CO2 are being challenged. A big challenge for Washington State citizens will be the internal politics of coal terminal siting. Jobs, tax revenue, pollution, train noise, transportation disruption from long trains, international trade balance, property value impacts, and global warming denial will all collide to test a whole range of state and local community values.

The Longview site is not the only site being discussed. There are likely other sites along the lower Columbia on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the river. A few years ago I evaluated a site being considered for a liquefied natural gas terminal.

A parcel of land long designated for an additional deep water pier is located in Whatcom County near the Canadian border at a place called Cherry Point. No permit applications have been submitted, but a public relations campaign has already begun with lining up of influential people weighing in advocating jobs and tax revenue and making statements about how they live in the real world and dismiss objectors as living in a theoretical world. Fairly typical large project touting. But as should be expected, the impacts will be pointed out by those with concerns with impacts to fish stocks (Cherry Point happens to be a critical herring fishery area), rail traffic, air and water quality, and of course the global CO2 impact of shipping and burning coal for electricity. A nice divisive issue to pit community folks against each since Bellingham may see 30 one-mile trains per day passing through the city. And this issue will bring out the global warming deniers and highly rational discussions that go with that subject (OK- a little opinion slipping into my neutral blog, but for those that know me well and follow local news in Bellingham, you know I am holding back regarding the opinions of at least one locally influential person).

In the 1700s this land saw inter tribal strife over trade and it appears that history may be to some extent repeated. But depending on how the issue of CO2 plays out in Longview, the issue may never really amount to anything in Whatcom County and the Cherry Point PR campaign will be all for naught. It won't be the first time for the pier schemes at Cherry Point.

Cheery Point relative to Robert's Bank

Possible Cherry Point site in Whatcom County

Friday, February 18, 2011

Field Work with Some Views

Field work so limited posts. But a nice day yesterday on the northwest Olympic Peninsula. Highway 101 goes over a pass between Mount Walker and the Olympic Mountains. A forest service road off the highway at the top of the pass provides access to the summit of Walker. Great views across Hood Canal and Puget Sound to Seattle and the Cascade Range. In May the forest understory of rhodedendrons is in bloom.

Snow squall on Mount Walker from east shore of Dabob Bay,
Quilcene area, Olympic Peninsula

Olympic Range form the Toandos Peninsula

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Rarest Forest in Western Washington?

Open Woodland on Orcas Island above West Sound

I was traversing a slope above the north end of West Sound on Orcas Island and noted the forest had a markedly different feel than the usual western Washington forest and sure enough I noted the leaves on the ground were oak leaves. 
Garry Oak leaf

Garry oaks grow are found in the warmest and driest sites in western Washington. They become progressively less common towards the north, but there are stands on the east side of Vancouver Island as far north as Courtney. These trees were once much more common but have been slowly crowded out by other trees particularly Douglas fir as fire is less common in western Washington than it was prior to Anglo settlement. First Nations people managed oak prairie habitats for the oaks and plants that grew under the oaks as food sources. The open grass areas under the trees and in the open areas between the trees were good deer habitat, another food source. Moerman (1998) has postulated that First Nations peoples spread oaks by planting acorns in favorable locations, but the oaks may be a remnant forest from a time when the coastal northwest was warmer and drier a few thousand years after the last glacial period approximately 8,000 years ago. Although stands of oaks are not rare in dry areas of western Washington (think Oak Harbor) I always enjoy seeing these trees as it is a reminder that our landscape changes and they are just different than the usual trees I see. 

But this particular forest of oaks had another tree. Scattered throughout the stand were juniper trees. Juniperus maritima are more are a unique species to northwest Washington and southwest BC. They are found within the very dry portions of the Olympic Mountain and Vanvouver Island rain shadow scattered pockets of this tree are present in areas of rocky dry ground with poor soil. The rocky west side of Orcas Island has a fair number of these trees.
Juniperus maritima and Garry oaks on slope
 above West Sound, Orcas Island

Juniperus maritima branch

Juniperus maritima trunk

The Garry oak ecosystem of western British Columbia is considered one of the rarest ecosystems in Canada. Garry oak forest is not common in western Washington, and with the mix of Juniperus maritima, this may perhaps be the rarest forest in western Washington. Work associates have indicated to me they have seen the same association on Fidalgo Island west of Anacortes and on Sucia Island north of Orcas Island.

Mixed forest on very thin soil above West Sound, Orcas Island

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pronghorn Reintroduction - A Future Template for Washington Wildlife?

I listen to KUOW, a Seattle based Pubic Radio station, while I putter about in the morning in the kitchen before heading to work. This morning KUOW had a story on the Yakima Nation's introduction of pronghorns onto the Yakima Indian Reservation. The KUOW story can be read or listened to
Back in early December I posted a write up on pronghorns-in-eastern-washington based on some reading I have done on the pronghorn question of Why are there no pronghorns in Washington State? I was aware of some research on the idea reintroduction by First Nations peoples at the time.

The story by KUOW was similar to the story posted by the Seattle PI in late January in that both stories reference the Lewis and Clark Expedition observing pronghorns. There is some debate about the post 1800 pronghorn observation record with some questions as to the observations of Lewis and Clark. The party recorded seeing pronghorn along the Columbia River near the Dalles, but non were reported along the Snake or the high plains above the Snake and none were reported taken for food. In reading David Douglas' journals there are no references to pronghorn that I recall, but he did claim eating buffalo tongue given to him by a Columbia River tribe in what is now eastern Washington north of Hanford. It appears that by 1800, pronghorn were already rare to nearly non existent in eastern Washington and certainly by 1900 they were gone entirely excepting a failed reintroduction effort for hunting in the early 1900s. However, the archeologic record is clear that pronghorn were present in Washington State for a long time.

The historic record indicates that pronghorn were already in severe decline in eastern Washington even before the arrival of Americans and Europeans due to First Nations peoples acquiring guns, horses combined with somewhat limited habitat in eastern Washington. However, the near extermination of pronghorns elsewhere in the 1800s precluded the possibility of migration of pronghorns back into eastern Washington. Settlement with fence building placed further barriers to pronghorn migration back to eastern Washington. So even though pronghorn populations have recovered to healthy levels elsewhere, the only way to get pronghorns back into eastern Washington was likely transplanting as has been done by the Yakima Nation.

Given some of the reaction by politicians and powerful lobby groups, reintroduction could only have been done by First Nations peoples. The reintroduction of pronghorn by the Yakima nation may be a template for reintroducing or augmenting other wildlife species in Washington State in the future.

I do like Lewis' description of the pronghorn from one journal entry while traversing the high plains "We found the Antelope extreemly shye and watchfull insomuch that we had been unable to get a shot at them; when at rest they generally seelect the most elivated point in the neighbourhood, and as they are watchfull and extreemely quick of sight and their sense of smelling very accute it is almost impossible to approach them within gunshot... they will frequently discover and flee from you at the distance of three miles. I had this day an opportunity of witnessing the agility and the superior fleetness of this anamal which was to me really astonishing... I beheld the rapidity of their flight along the ridge before me it appeared reather the rappid flight of birds than the motion of quadrupeds." —Monday, September 17, 1804. I share Lewis' admiration for pronghorns and look forward to seeing them in the Horse Heaven Hills of southern Washington. Perhaps pronghorns will be able to live in other areas of Washington's landscape if they can get past the barriers our landscape and politics place across their range.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Crescent Beach, Orcas Island: Madrones, Aspen, Midens and Geology

Just east of the village of Eastsound on Orcas Island Crescent Beach Road drives across the upper part of Crescent Beach. The road was constructed on the upper beach berm such that during high tides with south wind, sand, gravel and woody debris is washed onto the road. I had some extra time on the island last week before getting to the ferry landing in Olga for the trip back to Anacortes. So I took a walk on the beach to check out a very fine group of Pacific madrones.

Pacific madrone, Crescent Beach, Orcas Island

Madrones are a common shoreline bluff tree and are common on droughty sites; places where sun will be maintained as the madrones don't get shaded out by other tress Their truncks of orange red and growth habit are an appealing feature of the tree. Madrones have been reported in decline, but this stand appears exceptionally healthy. In approaching the madrone stand from the beach I observed that the madrones are growing out of a fairly large midden.

Midden of shells and black soil

Perhaps the rich miden soil explains the apparent health and bulk of these trees. It makes sense that a large midden would be located at this site. The beach would be an ideal location for pulling large canoes up onto the berm and the tide flats are even today used as shell fish growing areas. The Lummi Tribe owns a parcel of land near here on the peninsula shore between Crescent Beach and Eastsound that they still use for gatherings to harvest food from the shoreline.

Behind the beach berm capped by the road is a forest and wetland parcel owned by the San Juan Land Trust. There are a few parking areas for trails through the forest. A noteworthy stand of aspen are growing adjacent to the road within the wet land area behind the beach berm as well as a black hawthorn, small tree that always rudely surprises me when bump into a thicket.

Aspen next to Crescent Beach Road on San Juan Trust Land 

Stem of a black hawthorn

Black hawthorn

Crescent Beach is a pleasant spot to relax on a sunny day. The beach counties along the base of a feeder bluff to the southeast. The feeder bluff erodes from wave action and supplies the sediment that maintains the beach. The bluff is a nearly vertical 50-foot high bluff consisting of glacial marine drift. These soils were deposited near the end of the last glacial period by melting glacial ice floating on sea water approximately 13,000 years ago. The local elevation was lower due to the mass of glacial ice which had pushed down the local land surface below sea level.

The beach in front of the bluff is not public and numerous signs asking beach walkers to respect private property are posted starting at the stand of madrone trees. I will withhold my opinions regarding private ownership of tideland, but simply note that this particular tideland was deeded by Washington State to the current owners in 1912. 

There used to be a road that ran along the top of the bluff. Apparently public ownership of that road was given away as the parcel maps do not show public ownership or right-of-way along the crest of the bluff. The road was abandoned due to erosion decades ago. I worked on a site that had an old culvert under the old road that was causing slope erosion and shoreline damage. We came up with a very nice solution that protected the beach and upland. 

Feeder bluff for Crescent Beach with Mount Constitution in the background

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lodgepole Pine on Orcas Island

Lodgepole pine on Mount Constitution

Young lodgepole

Lodgepole pines on Orcas Island

Lodgepole pine has a range from the the mountains of Mexico to the Yukon and from the Pacific Coast to Alberta and Colorado. But most impressive is the range of elevation. This is a tree that grows well in very cold temperatures high in the Rocky Mountains. Large tracts of Yellowstone National Park and the high Colorado Rockies are covered by these trees. But the lodgepole is also present at low elevations in western Washington.

Just because the lodgepole can be found over a large range, this is a species adopts very specific traits to the sites where they grow. Hence taking seeds from one site to another to grow lodgepoles often leads to poor tree growth and coastal lodgepoles are particularly limited based on studies on the east side of Vancouver Island by Ying and Liang (1994). They noted even elevations of 500 feet had significant difference in tree health.

I observed stands of lodgepole on Orcas Island last week. The lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in the lowlands of western Washington are considered a subspecies called shore pine (Pinus contorta contorta).  The name shore pine is misleading as I find this lodgepole subspecies well away from the water more frequently than near the water. For a time I would see a contorted evergreen growing on rocky ground near the water and think it must be a shore pine but nearly always found the tree to be a Douglas fir. This winter I was on the upper slopes of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island well away from the water at 2,000 feet elevation and suddenly realized that nearly the entire stand of evergreens I was in consisted of lodgepole pine.

Lodgepoles were likely much more common in the past in western Washington when forest fires were more common. Particularly in areas in the Olympic Mountains rain shadow or areas where there are thin soils. Orcas Island straddles the rain shadow and certainly has lots of rocky areas with very thin soils. Balds and prairie areas were formerly much more extensive and fires would have been a much more common occurrence both naturally and from fires set by First Nations peoples. Without fire the larger, taller Douglas fir and western hemlock will shade out lodgepole.

I did note that young lodgepole seems to have an advantage over young Douglas fir. Deer nibble young fir into natural banzai trees, but leave the lodgepole alone giving the lodgepole pines an advantage. 

Lodgepole surrounded by heavily cropped Douglas fir

Stunted Douglas fir

Friday, February 11, 2011

Weekend Reading and Loafing

We are faced with a cool wet weekend in western Washington. A good weekend for reading and video watching. I am not sure I have the capacity to be a clearing house for articles, but there are a few sites I check routinely and some occasionally. I have posted a few videos I have stumbled across and by page views they generally prove to be popular, especially the ones involving cars (rearranging cars or large metalic debris ).

The video below is from the National Science Foundation website and provides a geologic perspective on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The link to the NSF site with the article can be found at ttp://

As for my own blog reading there are the blogs on my sidebar:

1000 Paintings by my favorite landscape painter.

Cliff Mass Weather Blog is always fun for Washington or other weather junkies

Northwest Geology Field Trips by David Tucker has well researched geology trips in Washington State in keeping with my emphasis of Reading the Washington Landscape. David does not post frequently primarily because his write ups are often very detailed and well referenced.

Paul Krugman Blog gives a heavy dose of economics at an amazing rate and some politics as well. Mr. Krugman reminds me constantly of outside economic forces influences on our landscapes. I often start my day reading Krugman and then link to the New York Times from his blog.

If your seeking some other good content I do have a few others I routinely check in on:

Hhighly Allochthonous Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan have a blog that is a labor of love and one I highly appreciate. And the blog name is a great geology play on words. But there is lots more than geology in the blog and they provide a nice links at the end of most weeks to stuff they have come across. They also are leaders geology/science blogging having been at it for a while.

Looking for Detachment Silver Fox is part of the geology blog community. But my main reason for reading Looking for Detachment (an interesting play on words only geologists can appreciate) are the write ups on an area of land I have often traveled. If you ever plan to drive through Nevada, you can get plenty of ideas and understanding on what to see by reading this blog. 

En Tequila Es Verdad by Seattle writer Dana Hunter is a blog that is well worth checking. Her Friday Los Links will stimulate your mind. And she can go all political crazy and given my own history is greatly appreciated. 

landslideblog The Landslide Blog by Dave Petley provides great information on geology hazards and given that is what I do as a grunt geologist I read his posts to stay humble. The other AGU blogs are worth checking too. I used to have the landslide blog on my sidebar, but found the sidebar link to the AGU has some glitches I have not bothered trying to figure out.

Great Timing for Field Work

The past two days I was out in the field. Great timing as it was sunny both days. A bit icy in the early morning but the sun now has some warmth in it versus a month ago when even full sun provided little warming. Now its back in the office for some lengthily writing and review sessions. Again good time as it is cool and wet outside.

Early morning view down East Sound on Orcas Island

Yesterday entailed a very early start to catch the first ferry out to Orcas Island. The first ferry consists mostly of folks heading over to do some kind of work. Lots of people including me napping for the hour it takes to reach the Olga ferry landing. The nice thing is that by 7:00 it is now getting light. One of the big challenges of winter field work at just shy of the 49th parallel is the short daylight hours. The sun is already up well more than an hour than it was in late December. So by the time I had reached my job site, it was light enough to see my way through the forest and cliffs I had to inspect.

The ferry ride back to Anacortes was very pleasant. Stretched out on a bench taking in the early afternoon sun while napping (I did get very early). My nap was interrupted by the ferry captain announcing whales to the starboard. Had a quick glimpse of a couple Orcas. All in all a hard day of field work, but somebody had to do it. Lots of interesting tree observations including lodge pole pines, aspen, oaks and Juniperus maritima during this trip for future posts.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Puget Ice Lobe Turns Up a Valley

Drumlin features marking ice flow paths and the Devil's Mountain Fault Zone

Deep snows in the Canadian Coast Range evolved into massive glaciers that flowed south into lowland between the Cascade Range and the Olympic Range during the last glacial period. The LiDAR image above from southeast of Mt. Vernon captures the flow path that was generally from north to south. But note the drumlin features that make a turns towards the east. It is a bit counter intuitive, but during the maximum extent of glacial ice in western Washington, the glaciers in the Cascade range did not extend down to the Puget ice lobe. The ice flow in the lower valleys was up the valleys from the thick ice in the Puget lowland.

The Devil's Mountain fault zone is a fairly major structure and though no clearly distinctive offsets are present in post ice age deposits, it is hard to imagine that this fault is not active and deformations and hints of offset on the north end of Whidbey Island suggest that this fault is capable of giving Mount Vernon and the area a good shake.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hearing Examiners - a summary

Last week I did a write up on Park and Blue Canyon and noted a Hearing Examiner ruling on zoning at the old Park Store. I have in mind writing up a hearing examiner determination or two because hearing examiner determinations can have an impact on how our landscape looks and provides insight into the county rules that influence the Washington State landscape.

Hearing Examiners make land use determinations throughout Washington State on county land use issues. Their level of responsibility varies a bit from county to county, but the underlying purpose of hearing examiners is to remove elected county council or county commissioners from legal determinations regarding development code issues. Or put in another way, the purpose of having a hearing examiner is to get the politics out of land use determinations. County legislatures still set land use policy and zoning codes within the parameters of state law, but the hearing examiner method removes some of the favoritism that might otherwise take place.

Hearing examiners hear appeals, review planned unit developments, site specific rezones, and long plats. The examiner will hear appeals of zoning determinations if a property owner disagrees with the county planners. Such was the case with the earlier posted Park Store issue. Once the hearing examiner makes a determination, that decision can be appealed. In Whatcom County, the appeal goes to the County Council. The Council can overturn the hearing examiner if the the hearing examiner made a clear error in law. A rather high bar, but it does happen and the council must state the error.

Hearing examiners also review more complex land subdivisions known as planned unit developments. These types of land divisions often have more flexibility built into them to allow greater latitude for a property developer, but conditions are often added to ensure the intent of the zoning and regulations are met. The hearing examiner makes sure that regulations are followed and conditions appropriate to the impacts of the proposed development are written into the plan. It is a good accountability check to make sure planners that review the project are doing their job in an appropriate manner and are not being unduly influenced by higher ups in local government. It also allows for a process for interested parties to get information that is applicable to the county planners. These decisions get forwarded to the County Council for final decision. The council can uphold the recommendation or send it back if there is a legal error.

The hearing examiner also reviews long plats. These are often not very complicated and it is just a question of whether the land division meets the county code and development standards. These do not require council review, just the council chair signature. I caused a stir once when I refused to sign a plat because a note that was required to be on the plat plan was missing. Having a land use wonk as council chair caused no end of irritation.

Geology can be part of a hearing examiner review. Occasionally I write reports that are part of the record before a hearing examiner and a couple of times I have been asked to testify during hearings and have been subject to cross examination by attorneys. In this regard it is helpful to not only understand the geology of a site but also the lens through which the hearing examiner and attorneys are looking at the case - the legal aspects as spelled out by the words in the code. Understanding code is a bit like figuring out geologic strata using Steno's Principles. Tying code language to geology principles is a geology exercise that is frequently part of my job as a geologist. Providing good geology testimony also means knowing your audience and what they need. And sometimes as a geologist you need to tell your client long before they go to a hearing examiner that geologic conditions will not allow them to do what they want. Part of my job is giving people bad news.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Democratizing LiDAR - Some Sources for LiDAR Images

LiDAR map of parts of Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island Counties

Although having LiDAR on a computer screen is great, a large paper map gives a bigger picture and is a great conversation starter regarding big picture ideas about northwest Washington's landscape. Paul Pittman of Element Solution gave me this paper LiDAR map. I have spent hours looking at it.

You do not have special programs or computer capacity to get LiDAR images. For one thing you could click on the image above and save it to have your own LiDAR map to explore bare earth images of northwest Washington and develop your own theories about the late stages of the last glacial period. But there are some other sources on line that are not too difficult to figure out: This page has KML Files that you can click to download and you will be taken straight to Google Earth to view the images and navigate hours away. This access project is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and collaborative efforts to provide broad public access to these images including Google. There are not a lot of images yet available, but the California fault lines are fun to look at and there is a an excellent file of the Yakima River from Ellensburg to south of Yakima.

Entrenched meanders in the Yakima River Canyon south of Ellensburg

Braided Yakima River cutting through Ahtanum Ridge at Union Gap south of Yakima San Juan County very recently added LiDAR bare earth images to their Polaris property search. A bit clunky but a great resource.

Northwest Orcas Island

A few notes on the Orcas Island image. The faint curving lines are old beach strand lines formed as Orcas Island emerged from below sea level as the area rebounded from the mass of glacial ice approximately 12,000 years ago. The image also shows two rather large landslide areas including the bite on the left portion of the picture. I was aware of some poor stability in that area but until I saw this image had no idea the scale of the feature. The Puget Sound LiDAR Consortium has an interactive map for viewing LiDAR in Puget Sound. I posted a few images of the Seattle fault zone from the images available from the Consortium site HERE

Finally Jefferson County has provided LiDAR images as well as other excellent maps with their map server Click critical areas maps and then once you zoom into where you want to look go to the layers and click LiDAR. I work all over Washington State and Jefferson County's map server is one of the best and earliest excellent map search programs. You can even find elevtaions on the map and determine slop gradients. 

Screen shot of Jefferson County's Map Server Program showing the Thorndyke Landslide Complex

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wildlife Leave Trees, a New Arrival on Our Landscape

Tall leave trees on a harvest unit

Leave trees rising above young stand of new trees above Samish River Valley

Forest practices have changed significantly in Washington State over the past few decades. One of the changes is a requirement to leave a certain number of mature trees behind during clear cut harvests. These trees serve as wildlife trees. Trees are left along streams to keep streams cool, prevent or slow erosion of side slopes into the stream and provide organic material for insects in the water. The primary goal of this approach is maintain better riparian conditions along streams not only on the harvest area but down stream as well.

Large trees are left in the middle of harvest areas as well for bird habitat. Raptors and owls and other birds need perches only larger trees can provide. Older trees also provide food for smaller birds and other forest animals. If these large trees die they will more likely develop cavities that provide critical homes for cavity dwelling birds and animals. If they develop large side limbs, those limbs may provided nesting sites for certain birds once the new trees grow up around the older tree.

The rules and policies regarding wildlife leave trees have some flexibility and depend on size of the harvest areas and proximity to other leave trees. Trees left to protect streams or unstable slopes can be counted. The details are worked out by the foresters and biologists. But I will say that the stream buffers are reducing sediment loads in streams and reducing the frequency of small shallow slides.  

The particular wildlife leave trees in the above pictures are on Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) managed public forests on the east side of the Samish River Valley. These particular tracts of land include both Common School Grant Trust lands and State Forest Board Transfer lands. The nuances of trust lands is a diffent subject for another day. But as the lead agency on forest practices, DNR tends to adhere well to the forest practices regulations and bends towards being more protective of forest health, wildlife and stream conditions. As a large land manager, they need to practice prudently as they can be a big target on forest battles in legislation and courts. Pushing the envelope for a few more harvested trees could have a long lasting impact on revenues to the public trusts.
At least on this traverse to stream of interest, I was struck by the health of the leave trees. And observed one tree of exceptional size that was apparently left after the previous harvest as well perhaps because it was not of much value with its broken top and heavy limbs. It had even survived a fire as its base had healed burn marks. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Park Store - Sometimes Zoning Does Not Matter

Abandoned store at Park Road and Blue Canyon Road, Whatcom County

Last week I returned from the Samish River Valley to Bellingham via Park Road, around the south end of Lake Whatcom to Bellingham. The old Park store is located at the far southeast end of the lake at the junction of Blue Canyon Road and Park Road. It is a very quiet area with a few rural homes along the Park Road to the east, a few small lot houses tucked up along Blue Canyon Road which dead ends about one mile to the north and a few get away homes along the lake some distance to the west. Otherwise the area is commercial forest land. Whatcom County does not allow homes on land zoned commercial forestry. A rather exceptional land use policy compared to other Washington counties as it  preserves forest resources for timber. 

The store is all that is left from a period 100 years ago when a great many more people lived in the area. No all places in Washington State have seen population growth and this is one area where there has been significant population decline. The decline in population was driven by outside economics and geology. But the population boom before the decline was also driven by outside economics and geology.
Over 120 years ago on the mountain slope above this area a seam of high quality coal was discovered at the base of the Chuckanut Formation. Coal had already been mined from seams adjacent to Bellingham Bay, but the Sehome mine under what is now part of downtown Bellingham had been closed in the 1870s. The Blue Canyon Mine had the advantage of being located on a steep slope above the lake. Coal could be sent down the slope to coal bunkers by the water, loaded on barges and towed to the north end of the lake and then transported to Bellingham Bay by a rail line from the north end of the lake. The Blue Canyon Mine began operations in 1890. Even though the coal was very high quality, the mine proved to be very unsafe with numerous explosions including a blast that killed 21 miners: D. Y. JONES, JAMES KIRBY, ANDREW ANDERSON, JAMES McANDREW, MIKE ZEILISKI, LUCAS LATKE, E. P. CHASE, THOMAS CONLIN, GEORGE ROBERTS, BEN MORGAN, JOHN WILLIAMS, AL HENDERSON, WILLIAM EVANS, ISAAC JOHNSON, WILLIAM LYSTER, CHARLES RAMBERG, SAMUEL OLSEN, J. A. MORGAN, TOM VALENTINE, J.O. ANDERSON, and MARTIN BLUM (Seattle PI, 1895).

Coal loading facility at Blue Canyon, Lake Whatcom

Later a rail line was extended down the east side of Lake Whatcom to the mine and onto the South Fork Nooksack Valley/Samish River Valley via Anderson Creek Valley. All of these valleys including the valley in which Lake Whatcom is located are deep low glacial valleys in the Northwest Cascades. 

Initially the coal was used for ship fuel. In 1907 Seattle Lighting Company bought the mine and the village and shipped the coal to Seattle to make coal gas for lighting. Mines require workers and shippers and hence a community grew at Blue Canyon. In addition to the mine, logging began around the mountain slopes of the area. At that time that meant a lot of loggers. It was a labor intensive industry. At least 5 logging camps were established in the area. Besides the logging and mining, a trip by boat down the lake was an appealing get away adventure from Bellingham so there was some tourism. The valley to the west provided good farm land for raising beef and the valley connects with the much broader and alluvial rich farm land in the Samish and South Fork Nooksack Valley. Blue Canyon at the south end of the lake was well situated along the transportation route through the Northwest Cascade range. Blue Canyon grew into a town with a school, post office, hotels, a boarding house and homes.

Sketch of Blue Canyon by Eva Siemons 

The town of Blue Canyon's decline began in 1920. In about 1920 a new very extensive coal seam located in northwest Bellingham was opened. The combination of a major coal mine adjacent to the bay, electrification in Seattle and elsewhere eliminating the need for coal gas for lighting, and the dangers of this particular mine, the Blue Canyon Mine was closed.

The late 1800s and early 1900s was not known for particularly sustainable logging practices. Once the timber was removed from the area, the logging interests moved on. Farming likewise diminished as areas better suited and better connected via rail were able to out compete the small valley and mechanization meant less people could do the farming. Tourists found other places to travel to as more roads and rail lines opened up the area for travel. 

Blue Canyon faded away, buildings burned down were salvaged for lumber and simply rotted away or were grown over by the forest and brush. The rail line that served the area briefly was abandoned. Even the steep mountain slopes played a role with debris flows and steady slow earth movements within the weak phyllite. A debris flow in 1983 removed at least one house.

The Park store building survived as a way stop and convenience stop for the few area residents or passer bys. But it too was abandoned for a long time. In the late 1990s it was purchased and reopened. The site had been zoned as a rural neighborhood commercial zone matching the structure and past use of the site. However, this zoning would not allow a viable business in this out of the way location. The owners began selling other items and operating a motor cycle parts and repair shop in addition to the convenience groceries for area residences. This likely would have gone unnoticed except that the location became a rally center for weekend and summer motor cycle tours. The distinctive sounds of Harleys echoed down the lonely valleys. 

Neighbors complained that the store was in violation of the county zoning code and county planners ordered the store to cease selling motor cycle parts and other gear and items excluded by the neighborhood zoning code. The shop owners appealed this order to the County Hearing Examiner. The County Hearing Examiner rule in favor of the store essentially saying that the code would not allow this business but there was no way a store could be viable at this site unless they were allowed to sell other items. The planning department appealed this decision to the County Council.

At that time I was on the County Council. As soon as the appeal was filed motorcycle groups began showing up at county council meetings pleading the stores case. I will say this - they were one of the best organized group of activists I saw on my eight years on the Council. The Council chamber was packed the night the Council had to vote. One council member dressed up as a motorcycle rider (he has a motorcycle). Being a complete policy wonk, I voted to overturn the Hearing Examiner as did three other Council members. As one council member that remembers the scene of enraged Harley riders, I would have been dead if looks could kill. But despite the drama and understandable upset motorcycle riders, no violence took place. I should note that one of the neighbors, a very elderly woman and the only one with the guts to complain about the shop, was not known for holding back her verbal wrath either, and she came to nearly every council meeting and often came to the council office - so in this case there was no escaping angry people no matter how you voted.

Of course that was not the end of the issue. The shop owners had a choice of appealing to Superior Court, giving up, breaking the zoning law or applying for a zoning change. They choose to apply for the zoning change and ultimately it was granted and the old Park store was zoned tourist commercial allowing a much broader opportunity for business. One condition was added that due to the store being in the Lake Whatcom watershed, the drinking water source for Bellingham, no motor repair work was allowed. That condition was later applied to all properties in the watershed. 

This latest chapter all took place in 2002 and 2003. Three years later one of the store owners died. I do know there are a lot of other issues with the property and clearly the building is in poor condition. It appears that the last vestiges of Blue Canyon are fading away.