ALSEA — A massive landslide developing above a tributary of the Alsea River potentially could wipe out a world-class salmon research center and threaten lives and property downstream.
But the Weyerhaeuser Co., which owns the land, and state officials wonder if there’s anything they can really do — other than to install a monitoring system to warn everyone downstream if or when 35 acres of the Coast Range gives away.
At risk is the Oregon Hatchery Research Center, established 13 years ago by the Legislature at the urging of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Despite its remoteness, it has developed into a one-of-a-kind place to study salmon and steelhead, drawing scientists from across the United States and world.
In addition to the three families of ODFW employees who live year-round at the center, also at risk are visiting scientists, years of research, tour and school groups, conference attendees, $7.5 million in buildings and equipment — and three other families farther down Fall Creek.
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“There’s a big piece of the world that’s obviously moving,” said Mike Totey, the Oregon Department of Forestry manager for the central coast. “It’s not your typical small Coast Range landslide.”
The slide covers 35 acres of a steep slope on Weyerhaeuser property 1 mile up Fall Creek from the research center. It was discovered last November when heavy silt runoff started flowing downstream, clogging the water systems critical to the center’s work.
A preliminary assessment in late November by a Weyerhaeuser geologist said the hillside appears to have been moving slightly for decades, but that record rains during the winter of 2016-17 triggered large breaks in the terrain and the threat of a massive collapse.
State officials now worry that the slide could smother Fall Creek with a debris dam, that water would build up behind it and then the whole thing collapse and wipe out the narrow valley below.
It’s enough of a threat that Lincoln County has set up a reverse 911 notification system to alert everyone if pumps at the research center fail.
But recommendations by the research center’s board and Susan Shaw, a Weyerhaeuser geologist based in Springfield, to install a monitoring system on the slide itself appear to have stalled.
Joseph O’Neil, who has directed the research center since its inception, calls the threat from the slide “imminent but maybe not immediate.”
“We made it through the winter, which we are really happy about,” O’Neil said. “But it’s big. It’s huge.”
The Oregon Hatchery Research Center sits 2 miles up a one-lane gravel road off Highway 34, about 15 miles west of Alsea. The center has its roots — and now its research — in the long and contentious battle over wild and hatchery fish in the Northwest.
The site once housed an ODFW coho salmon hatchery — not to be confused with the Alsea River Hatchery 18 miles farther east which produces steelhead smolts and rears rainbow trout.
After operating for 45 years, the Fall Creek Hatchery closed in 1997 when coastal coho runs crashed and biologists decided hatcheries were contributing to the decline of wild fish. It became a cause celebre in 1999 when a Philomath banker videotaped state workers clubbing to death thousands of hatchery fish returning from two years in the ocean rather than have them go farther up Fall Creek and mix with returning wild fish.
The hatchery complex sat unused until ODFW leaders convinced the 2005 Legislature to allocate $7.5 million to raze the site and build a research center that could help unlock the mysteries of salmon and steelhead.
Now, with Oregon State University as its research partner, it offers scientists everything needed to study salmon and steelhead. It can raise fish from eggs, separate and nurture them according to stream of origin, and uses miles of pipes, three sources of water and dozens of tanks for research projects. It is the only facility in the world with four long outdoor raceways filled with gravel, rocks and logs that can be molded to mimic real streams.
“It’s a scientific sand box,” O’Neil said. “Researchers drool when they see this.”
O’Neil even helped one researcher build an electromagnetic field of wire and wood that helped decipher how salmon navigate the ocean to hone in on their stream of origin. The project is the center’s most famous study yet.
Inside the center, there are labs and offices for visiting scientists, a 25-room dormitory with a kitchen so researchers can stay on site, an interpretive center for the general public and a large conference room for meetings and gatherings.
O’Neil and two assistants live in three houses on the complex and are on-call day and night.
Even the relatively small — so far — movement of the slide upriver is having an effect downstream.
Silt from a small section of the slide is filling in the banks and covering the bottom of Fall Creek, which can smother eggs from spawning salmon and steelhead. The silt is filling a dam-created pond above the research center that provides water for projects. And the silt clogs water filters and pumps, requiring workers to more closely monitor them and frequently clean them.
The center has an active public education and outreach program for Oregon schools, especially those in Lincoln County. But the center now warns them of the slide’s threat, O’Neil said, and that’s causing some schools to back off sending students.
Scientists have also been warned — and are growing leery, he said.
“We are operating, but it’s not easy to attract world-class scientists until we know what the threat truly is,” O’Neil said.
So far, Weyerhaeuser’s report is the only close-up look at the slide, what may have caused it and recommendations on what to do next. Weyerhaeuser officials, including Shaw and regional forest manager Jill Bell, did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment. But Shaw’s 16-page report lays out in detailed scientific terms what is going on.
Weyerhaeuser has owned the property for decades, logging portions of it in the 1970s, the late 1980s and for the last time in 1997, according to Shaw’s report. The timber in the area is now 27 to 37 years old.
Based on observations and remote-sensing data, Shaw wrote that she believed the slide is not directly related to road building or logging. Instead, her report said, it is the resumption of a prehistoric movement of land likely triggered by the record rainfall during the winter of 2016-17.
Within the bigger slide there is a small, shallower landslide, Shaw wrote, that is creating the silt problem in Fall Creek. She expects it to “grow substantially.” As for the main slide, during a Nov. 30 visit, Shaw observed that it had dropped enough to leave a 30-foot wall at its top and that an old logging road had dropped by 10 feet.
Based on her observations, Shaw wrote “My interpretation is that deep-seated failure activity is accelerating … ."
Shaw wrote that it “would not be out of the question” to anticipate a catastrophic movement in portions of the 35-acre slide, “although predicting likelihood and timing of such an occurrence is not possible.”
At a minimum, Shaw wrote, the small slide will continue to bleed sediment into Fall Creek and there was little the company could do to mitigate that.
At a maximum, Shaw wrote, catastrophic failure of some or all of the 35-acre slide “could result in the creation of a large, channel-spanning debris jam on the Fall Creek floodplain” jeopardizing a Lincoln County road and two bridges. That debris dam, she wrote, could then burst and flood downstream areas with water, soil, rocks and trees.
She recommended closing access to the area, removing road culverts, developing a slide monitoring plan and analyzing risks to property along Fall Creek should there be a flood.
Six years ago John and Carolyn Caudle bought a house and outbuildings on 9 acres at the confluence of Fall and Skunk creeks. After 37 years of working on wire and wireless systems for AT&T in California, John Caudle says the property with a remodeled house, expansive lawn, hay growing in a field and a fenced garden is their little bit of paradise.
He’s taken his off-road vehicle up to see the slide and attended the meeting of Fall Creek residents where state and county officials briefed them on the threat.
Now hooked up to the 911 warning system, Caudle is pushing for a monitoring system on the slide itself.
“It’s doable,” he said. “We’re talking about the lives of a lot of people here if that thing should go. That amount of acreage, that amount of land … it would be devastating if it all let loose.”
“I wish they had a monitoring system in place,” Caudle said.