ECHO SYSTEM TIMBER SALE, King County — When it fell into this rich soil and sprouted, Washington was not yet a state. The seedling sank its root deep, and grew taller and taller as its first century of life rolled right on into another.
Alan Mainwaring, wildlife biologist for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, ran a tape around the tree’s mighty trunk and measured nearly 54 inches in diameter at breast height. The tree talked back, its wood squeaking, as he drove a borer into the tree and withdrew a slender core, then counted its rings. At about 144 years old and 190 feet high, this Douglas fir sized up as prime timber on state lands in this forest within earshot of I-90 that normally could be cut and sold for lumber.
But under a new policy announced Wednesday by Hilary Franz, Washington commissioner of public lands, this fir will instead be preserved, as part of the state’s new, 10,000-acre “carbon reserve.”
The state intends to lease the trees as carbon credits to emitters of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The DNR is partnering with Finite Carbon, a developer and supplier of carbon offsets, which will verify the effectiveness of the offsets.
Purchasers are expected to be larger corporations seeking to achieve reductions in their carbon emissions, said Franz, adding that in the first 10 years of the program, the DNR hopes to sell 900,000 credits reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere by the equivalent of 2 billion vehicle miles traveled.
Money from the leases in these forests will compensate beneficiaries of state trust lands, including the state school construction fund, and money for hospital districts, library districts and more.
In addition to the 840,000 acres of DNR-managed trust land designated for conservation, the 10,000-acre carbon reserve adds a bit more acreage off-limits to harvest, about 0.5% of the state’s forested trust lands. But as climate change threatens the planet, these trees are more valuable living than as lumber, said Franz, who announced the carbon reserve at a news conference at the Capitol State Forest on Wednesday.
Sequestering carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, in trees which use it as food to grow, helps blunt the worst effects of climate change. Globally, forests absorb about a third of all the carbon emissions annually from the burning of fossil fuels.
As scientists increasingly warn climate change threatens the planet, “I have a big belief that with climate change here, we need to save our forests to truly save ourselves,” Franz said
“The most sustainable environmental thing we can do is increase the number of acres of land in forests, both natural and working forests, and we have very, very little time left to save both.”
Franz said the new carbon reserve is the result of a commitment she made a year ago to step back from harvest of the state’s older forests to assess their value for biodiversity, climate and more.
The DNR has come under increasing criticism for harvesting such trees, which are not protected under its old-growth policy but nonetheless have high ecological value.
The reserve is being phased in. A total of 3,750 acres is being set aside now, with the balance yet to be identified for preservation in phase two. Under a commissioner’s order, 10,000 acres in all will be set aside in areas available for lease only for the purposes of carbon storage, and generating revenue for state trust beneficiaries through carbon markets.
The program in Washington is launching with protection of forests in Whatcom, Thurston, King and Grays Harbor counties.
DNR trust lands generate about $180 million a year for schools and counties across the state.
By diversifying revenue streams beyond harvest to include carbon leases, the trusts could actually come out ahead, with revenues generated with greater financial stability and certainty, Franz said.
She predicted the carbon leases would generate tens of millions of dollars for schools, colleges and local services that state trust lands support.
Forests may be selected for the reserve for a range of reasons, including significant concentration of biodiversity; presence of rare, threatened or endangered ecosystems and habitats; watershed protection and erosion control; and resources or areas fundamental to basic needs and cultural identities of Indigenous people and local communities.
In that way, the new policy provides a broader palette for conservation beyond just the age of a tree.
The policy already is drawing strong reactions.
Peter Goldman, director and managing attorney of the nonprofit Washington Forest Law Center, called the reserve “green lipstick on a pig” because it sets some state lands aside for conservation while other state legacy forests are still being cut down.
“It’s great, who could be against it,” he said of the reserve. “But is she just trying to pour cold water on the political heat she is taking on these sales?”
He also doubted if the carbon markets will pay enough to really make the trusts whole.
He and others said they were surprised by the policy because Conservation Northwest, the Washington Environmental Council and other plaintiffs have taken a lawsuit all the way to the State Supreme Court to argue the DNR has the authority to consider values beyond dollars when determining management of state lands not only for trust beneficiaries, but for all the people of Washington. A decision on the case is expected any time.
Rachel Baker, forest program director for the WEC, said the carbon project shows it is both possible and necessary to manage state forest lands for multiple benefits, “like we have been saying all along.
“We welcome DNR taking this step forward.”
However that step is small, she noted: 10,000 acres is about 0.5% of DNR’s forested trust lands. “It’s a good thing, but it leaves us interested in what DNR is doing with the remaining 1.99 million acres,” Baker said. “We would love to see DNR use this as a jumping-off point and managing state lands holistically for climate.”
In a statement released Tuesday night, Travis Joseph of the American Forest Resource Council, a forest industry trade association, said the reserve is too much in addition to other policies already in place to conserve forests that put nearly half of DNR trust lands in Western Washington off-limits to harvest.
“We are concerned that Commissioner Franz is moving forward with no analysis or recognition of the consequences to link the future of the Department, Washington’s forest workers … and our public forests to complex and controversial financial markets with uncertain environmental outcomes,” Joseph stated.
As the people carry on, so do the trees.
The big Douglas fir on the Echo System sale is hitting its stride as it surges into its second century — just the beginning for a magnificent species such as Doug fir, which can live 800 years or longer, Mainwaring noted.
This forest sprouted after a fire in 1790. It was logged in 1850 by hand, with the logs dragged out by teams of oxen. Lots of trees were left behind. That set the stage for what is on the land today; 140- to 160-year-old Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar.
Here and there are trees sprouted from blackened stumps: reminders of the 1790 fire.
It’s a place rich with wildlife.
A trunk was bare in the spot where a black-tailed deer had recently rubbed the velvet off its antler. Trees were chiseled by woodpeckers seeking grubs, the wood chips in a yellow scatter all over the ground. The canopy was growing into the cover favored by flying squirrels.
Fallen logs and blowdown were rotting into the debris that feeds the soil and next generation of trees. The understory was a tangle of salal, huckleberry and ferns. Spring’s first trillium shone white in the shadowy forest floor.
It’s not an old-growth forest. “We cut too much old growth,” Mainwaring said. In many places, “This is the best of what we’ve got left.”
He packed up his coring equipment, and gave the tree’s thick, mossy bark a pat as he headed out of the woods. “You are just a youngster,” he said. “No offense, you are beautiful. But still, just a young tree.”
That now, will get to become old.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the size of a Douglas fir.