We need Washington’s next commissioner of public lands to be open-minded to alternative ways of doing business. A big obstacle today is the Department of Natural Resources’s logging-oriented structure.
WASHINGTON’S 2 million acres of state-owned forests face unprecedented challenges: more frequent and intense forest fires, drought, a growing population, and the need for more and improved fish and wildlife habitat to compensate for poor historic logging practices and a warming planet.
Despite these pressing concerns, The Seattle Times called for our next commissioner of public lands to maintain the status quo on our state forests [“What’s needed in the next state lands commissioner: temperance,” Times editorial, May 2].
We have a different view. We think our state forests are hobbled by an outdated business model and by short-term timber industry interests, and are missing out on opportunities to be more profitable and sustainable for all citizens. Washington’s next commissioner can and should make sensible reforms.
Most of Washington’s state forests were set aside as trusts for K-12 “common schools” and other state institutions in 1889 when our state’s population was about 240,000. These trusts were created so that neither the state, settlers nor robber barons could sell our state forests off or exploit them for short-term gain.
But labeling state forests as “trusts” does not answer how logging should be balanced against the legitimate interests of the general public. For example, does the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which the lands commissioner directs, shortchange a trust when it agrees not to clear-cut above a lake on which a major city depends for its drinking water? What about when it sets aside portions of forests essential for protecting endangered species as required by federal law? What if DNR decides not to log a landslide-prone slope perched above homes and an elementary school?
Many constitutional scholars believe the Washington state Constitution establishes public, not private, trusts and that the state does have the legal discretion to manage its forests in balance with the public’s expectation of clean water, public safety, and abundant fish and wildlife habitat. We agree. With innovative leadership, these values can produce better results for rural communities who rely on clean water, recreation and wildlife-related revenues, as well as logging, for their economic well-being.
What can our next commissioner do to reform this more than 125-year-old system? First, let’s be realistic about relying on state forests to build our K-12 schools: It is not a sustainable model. For example, in the 2014-2015 biennial school construction budget, logging revenue contributed only about $61 million of a total budget of about $495 million.
If we reduced the pressure to log by just a fraction, the commissioner could provide more balanced solutions on the land, such as improving habitat and carbon storage by extending the age at which forests are logged. The commissioner could also obtain certification under rigorous independent standards, such as those from the Forest Stewardship Council, and market its timber more effectively under this seal of approval. The bottom line to the schools could also be improved by exempting school-construction materials from the sales tax, by generating new revenue streams from ecosystem services like carbon storage that older forests provide or by developing a more robust recreation program.
We also need a commissioner committed to making efficiency reforms. One obstacle is DNR’s logging-oriented structure. About one-half of DNR’s employees work for the state timber-sales program, DNR charges the school-construction accounts 30 percent for its management services and logging companies add their profit margins onto the cost of purchasing state logs. As DNR works to meet unsustainable logging targets, it ends up pursuing too-risky logging operations in some places, resulting in wasted time and money for taxpayers. Our next commissioner needs to be open-minded to alternative ways of doing business.
We agree with The Times that “protecting the environment is a top priority for Washingtonians.” That’s why we need to elect a commissioner in November who has the skills, passion and commitment to bring management of state forests into the modern era.
Information in this article, originally published June 5, 2016, was corrected July 13, 2016. A previous version incorrectly stated that in 2015 logging on state land contributed $28.5 million toward the 2015-2017 K-12 school construction budget of $450 million. The logging revenue was actually generated in the 2015 fiscal year and applied to the 2014-2015 school construction budget. Logging revenue for that two-year budget was about $61 million.