Forests run deep in the Evergreen State’s identity and culture. Washington’s more than 2 million acres of state forests provide clean air and water, salmon spawning grounds, outdoor recreation access and habitat for the rich natural heritage that supports our quality of life.
State forests managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also provide wood for homes and tens of thousands of timber and non-timber jobs important for local communities. And science increasingly shows forests are critical in the fight against climate change.
As local conservationists deeply involved in forest policy and collaboration, we know it’s possible to steward state forests for current and future generations while supporting rural economies with good jobs.
Given the significant values our forests provide, it’s no surprise that Washingtonians have strongly held beliefs about how they are managed. A recent Seattle Times story describes disagreement over whether DNR should manage forests for carbon storage or timber revenue, and whether current policies are in line with the Washington State Constitution, which states “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people.” [“Amid climate crisis, a proposal to save Washington state forests for carbon storage, not logging,” March 21, A1].
The article by environmental reporter Lynda V. Mapes features a proposal from former Commissioners of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and Jennifer Belcher calling for the transition of state forests into ecological reserves with no timber harvesting. In response, former State Rep. Brian Blake wrote an Op-Ed published in The Seattle Times, and the American Forest Resource Council placed a sponsored opinion, both extolling the virtues of logging to reduce climate change.
We believe there is a more equitable and sustainable middle path between these two viewpoints, which would generate critical revenue for rural communities while harnessing Washington’s forests to store more carbon, and supporting public and wildlife values.
Such an approach taps into the biological capacity of these managed forests to sequester more carbon and grow more timber for harvest. Research demonstrates that extending harvest rotations in Douglas fir forests from 40 years to 80 years can more than double wood output because these trees don’t reach their maximum average annual growth rates until they’re at least 80 years old. Additional studies show longer rotations store more carbon dioxide in the combination of the forest and wood products.
While milled wood products do store carbon, they do so for far fewer years than the forest itself, and wood products emit carbon as they break down. Cutting forests on shorter cycles causes soil to lose stored carbon, while undisturbed forest soils hold massive quantities of carbon for thousands of years. Letting our forests grow older before harvest reduces these impacts, as well as supports biodiversity and clean water. Likewise, protecting old growth and mature forests from logging is key to climate-smart forestry, as harvest of old forests emits carbon dioxide that isn’t reabsorbed for centuries.
Currently, DNR interprets a 1984 state Supreme Court decision as requiring the agency to maximize revenue to named trust beneficiaries, including public schools. This leads them to harvest under shorter rotations on lands they are not otherwise required to manage for fish and wildlife listed under the Endangered Species Act. DNR’s Policy for Sustainable Forests provides more detailed management guidance but was last updated in 2006. This 72-page policy mentions “climate changes” only once.
It’s past time for an evolution in DNR’s management practices to match the challenges of today, but Washington can’t afford an “either/or” approach to our state forests.
We need healthy forests that take up more CO2 than they currently do, provide fish and wildlife habitat, generate wood products, offer public access for the increasing numbers of Washingtonians heading outdoors, and support rural communities. Thankfully, Washington’s State Constitution, written in 1889, recognizes the diverse values of our state forests.
Our organizations believe the “for all the people” wording of the state constitution gives DNR mandate to manage in the broader public interest, including to mitigate climate change, steward habitat to recover salmon and wildlife, provide access for outdoor recreation, and support trust beneficiaries and rural economies. The state Supreme Court recently granted direct review of our case to provide clarity on which interpretation is correct.
However, even under DNR’s current legal interpretation, we think it’s possible to transition to longer harvesting cycles in a way that keeps loggers and mill workers employed, and revenue flowing to trust beneficiaries. It is a matter of planning for an optimally-timed transition period to avoid economic disruptions. Carbon incentive payments are also increasingly available to compensate for any potential temporary decreases in revenue to counties and schools.
For example, Washington’s new Climate Commitment Act establishes a Natural Climate Solutions Account, which will receive a portion of the revenue generated from auction of emissions allowances. The account will support ecosystem resilience, conservation and carbon sequestration — including projects that increase “carbon sequestration and storage benefits in forests.”
Between 2023 and 2040, contributions to the Natural Climate Solutions Account will reach more than $663 million. These funds can support changes to forest management on state lands that increase carbon sequestration beyond DNR’s current practices, such as transition to longer timber harvest rotations. Alongside revenue from continued timber harvesting on state lands under more climate-smart approaches, these funds would provide supplementary revenue to counties and other State Trust beneficiaries as compensation for the important environmental benefits our public forests provide to the rest of the state and world.
Moving from 40- or 50-year harvest cycles to 80 years presents an opportunity for DNR to lead for all Washingtonians, and pave the way for similar transitions across the forest sector. Innovation on DNR managed forests can inform adoption of these practices on private forestlands, which in Washington cover an area three times larger than state forests.
The window is rapidly closing to reduce carbon emissions to avoid significant harm to human health and livelihoods. To meet this moment, we must harness the power of the Evergreen State’s forests to provide the dual climate benefit of avoiding emissions and drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — all while providing economic, biodiversity and community benefits.
Rather than choosing economic benefit or climate change mitigation for state forests, Washington must choose both. We call upon the conservation community, DNR, the forest-products industry, tribal nations and rural communities to work together to find solutions that sustain our state’s forests and people.