At a news conference on April 6, the Commissioner of Public Lands, who manages the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), announced a plan to set aside certain older forests on state land for the purpose of carbon storage instead of timber harvest. Although the identified acreage is very limited, less than 0.5% of state timber lands, the action is an important first step that acknowledges the pivotal climate protection function that intact older forests can provide in response to the climate crisis.

While creating a small carbon reserve with a few thousand acres of older forests is crucial to begin climate mitigation in state forests, this action is in stark contrast to DNR’s timber harvest plans. Under current state policy, older forests are being clear-cut at an alarming rate. Over the next year, the DNR has plans to log more than 5,000 acres of older forests that have similar characteristics to those identified for the carbon reserve. Since there are many younger plantations of trees available for harvest on DNR-managed lands, this choice to preferentially log older forests undermines the very goals and values expressed by Commissioner Hilary Franz on April 6. This glaring contradiction should be resolved. The DNR and the Board of Natural Resources should take swift action to abandon the plan to clear-cut these valuable older forests.

Our state needs to adopt a new approach to managing its forests — especially its older, naturally regenerated Western Washington legacy forests. These are forests that were first logged in the pre-WWII era, before industrial clear-cutting practices began. Many are more than a century old and exhibit old growth characteristics. These forests are not monocrop tree plantations — quite the opposite — they are lifeboats for biodiversity. They sequester carbon at remarkable rates, among the highest in the nation, and reach this remarkable capacity in the second century of their growth. If legacy forests are left to mature, the lowlands of Western Washington will once again be home to old growth forests.

According to mapping and timber sales tracking done by the Center for Responsible Forestry, if current DNR logging plans continue, these forests will all be gone in a few years. Thankfully, communities from Bellingham to Olympia and to the Olympic Peninsula are mobilizing and organizing to save these treasured forests. We strongly believe that these forests should be conserved and not logged. We reject the idea that the state needs to log these forests to pay for important public services.

We support the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, in his call to end the outdated linkage between logging and school construction. Today, less than 5% of the funding for school construction is from timber harvest on state land. Clearly, our state has a huge budget from which to properly invest in schools and rural communities without clear cutting the older irreplaceable legacy forests. Now is the time to work together to end the linkage between funding for vital public services and the logging of old legacy state forests.

Further, there is no truth to the misplaced notion that protecting older forests on DNR-managed lands would lead to a shortfall in wood for building construction. DNR can refocus its harvest plans away from older forests and instead harvest younger plantation forests. Keeping more private timber for local use can also help. DNR data from 2017, the most recent available, shows that almost 77% of the annual timber volume produced in Western Washington is harvested from private timberlands. By law, logs from DNR land cannot be exported but private land is not subject to the same restriction, and in fact tens of thousands of logs are annually shipped overseas. If there is a slight decrease in the DNR volume because legacy forests are left to grow, private logs could also be marketed locally to help create good jobs in our rural communities.

The time left to address the climate emergency is short and requires transformational change in the management of our state forests to meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. We must save our legacy forests to save ourselves and future generations.