A plan to preserve 10,000 acres of state lands in a carbon-sequestering project is a small step toward sustainability for Washington’s Department of Natural Resources. But a small step is better than none.
Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz last week announced plans to use the forests as carbon offsets, selling credits to industries that release carbon dioxide and other gases that cause climate change. “Our forests are the most renewable resources we have,” Franz said. “It is incumbent on us to manage and steward this resource, not just today, but for future generations.”
Forests are valuable in fighting climate change, as the trees store carbon and release oxygen. Globally, forests soak up about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.
That important role has long been understood by scientists. But Washington’s plan to meld those environmental benefits with a revenue-producing role is the first in the nation. Incentivizing the preservation of forests is the foundation of a cap-and-invest program adopted last year by the Legislature under the Climate Commitment Act.
The gist is that trees can provide an economic boost in a manner that doesn’t involve chainsaws; the program is expected to generate more than 900,000 carbon credits to be auctioned off to polluting industries. Officials say preserving those lands is equivalent to offsetting more than 2 billion miles driven by gas-powered cars.
Leases for carbon sequestration and storage are expected to generate payments similar in value to what timber sales would provide. Overall, about $180 million a year from Department of Natural Resources trust lands go toward the state’s school construction fund and other public benefits, such as hospitals and libraries.
As Franz said: “The carbon credits generated from these leased lands will support local budgets for education and essential services to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The trees that are cleaning the air and the water in our community will now also help fund its schools and libraries.”
Critics have been quick to complain that the proposal to preserve trees will endanger the logging industry. But 10,000 acres of forests amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of state-owned forests.
Others argue that the program does not go far enough in preserving state lands. Peter Goldman, director 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 legacy forests are still being cut down. “It’s great, who could be against it?” he asked. “But is she just trying to pour cold water on the political heat she is taking on these sales?”
If both business interests and environmentalists have complaints, then Franz may have landed in a sweet spot that balances competing concerns.
The 10,000-acre set-aside is essentially a pilot program, allowing officials to assess the program and further develop proposals that draw the state closer to its goal of carbon neutrality. The Department of Natural Resources manages about 2.4 million acres of forested land for long-term timber production, habitat protection and watershed preservation.
Timber production maintains an essential role in Washington’s forest management. It not only is important for producing jobs and revenue, but also plays a part in reducing the scope of wildfires and improving forest health.
A carbon-sequestering project simply adds to broad-based efforts to make the best possible use of Washington’s forests.