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News / Northwest

Washington auctions off more ‘old’ forest in $2.8 million sale

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: February 23, 2023, 7:52am

JONES BLUFF, Lewis County — A western red cedar towers on the slopes above Cannonball Creek. Its scorched core tells of passing flames, and its size suggests it narrowly missed the teeth of loggers’ saws a century ago.

The giant will be felled in the coming months as part of the over 100 acre McCannon timber sale, auctioned off for $2.8 million in January by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). About two-thirds of the proceeds will go to the Capitol Building Trust, which pays for capital projects on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. The rest will be divvied up between public education programs and Lewis County, where the timber is located.

The surrounding forest is one that’s becoming increasingly rare in the state — it has remained largely untouched since the chain saw was introduced. A natural patchwork of evergreens, alder and maple of varying heights and ages. The creek, a tributary to the wild Chinook-bearing Chehalis River, burbles beneath the ridge.

This timber sale in Southwest Washington is a common one. But it is also an example of a state forest some conservationists want to preserve.

The state Supreme Court ruled last summer that Washington can, but is not constitutionally obligated to, harvest forests or maximize revenue on state land. As DNR continues to auction off the state’s most valuable carbon sequestration tool, conservationists wonder if anything will change.

DNR says the ruling maintained the agency’s responsibility to sell timber for revenue. Under an antiquated system, state timber revenue helps fund schools, county governments and other essential services.

Older forests like this one, just a postage stamp among heavily logged lands, are on the chopping block. Instead, the department says they’re focusing on conserving “more valuable” continuous habitat like those flanked by federally protected lands.

“DNR is consciously making the decision to basically trade those,” Daniel Donato, DNR’s old growth expert and research scientist in the Forest Resources Division. “Because, in the long run, that’s going to be better.”

Yet conservationists want to imagine a world where logging isn’t the difference between a rural community getting a new fire truck or not. They say nothing will change unless the Legislature responds.

The sale goes ahead

A dirt road winds high above the 600-person, one-diner town of Pe Ell. With each turn opens a new phase of logging history: clear-cut, saplings, and stumps maybe as big as a Smart Car with chewed edges from a handsaw.

Before paved roads or motorized equipment, Pe Ell was a mill town. DNR estimates the McCannon timber was last logged in the early 1900s, with the most recent cuts about a century ago.

Enter the sale and a patch of vine maple, alder and devils club reaching out above a carpet of sword ferns, fragrant decomposing leaves, moss and spongy soil. Travel 100 feet deeper and the overstory begins to filter sunlight as deciduous trees are replaced with century-old cedars, hemlocks and Douglas firs.

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The rich biodiversity and carbon sequestering powers of this natural forest will be sacrificed under DNR’s responsibility to fund services in the state.

Stephen Kropp has been keeping a watchful eye on how DNR manages public lands for the past few years, advocating the preservation of what he and others call “legacy forests.”

National Parks and forests hold some of the last trees that outdate Western society. Little “old growth” is left on state lands.

What remains are forests like this on the border of Lewis and Pacific counties — natural forests that regenerated after early logging. They’ve never been replanted. Unlike homogenous plantations, they preserve biological diversity and support healthy watersheds.

The forests are on a healthy trajectory to old growth.

Kropp, founder of the Legacy Forest Defense Coalition, emailed DNR to ask them to take another look at some trees in the McCannon sale he thought may be old growth. In the past, the department has indeed retracted portions of forests slated to be cut.

Nothing in the McCannon sale meets DNR’s definition of old growth, which specifies there be five or more contiguous acres of forest with high levels of structural diversity and predating the year 1850.

Donato, the agency’s old-growth expert, and a forester returned to the sale the day before it went up for auction. They said they didn’t find trees older than the early 1900s. But they acknowledged the stand was beginning to develop some characteristics of mature forest — larger overstory and shade-tolerant understory.

There are no national forests or national parks in this part of the state, which includes the entire Chehalis River Basin, and all of the watersheds that drain to the Lower Columbia River and Willapa Bay. So this area is not a conservation priority for the state.

The few older stands that remain in Southwest Washington, almost all on state forest lands managed by DNR, could be logged in the next decade.

An emerging market

The way DNR manages public lands may be evolving, as the agency explores its potential role in Washington’s emerging carbon-credit market.

Under state law, DNR is only allowed to sell “valuable materials” from state-owned lands. That doesn’t include selling carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. Companion bills introduced in both chambers of the state Legislature earlier this month would change that.

In lieu of logging all working forests, the legislation would allow DNR to conserve some forestlands and replant areas scorched by wildfire. Then, carbon credits associated with those projects could be sold as offsets under the state’s new carbon-pricing scheme which requires the state’s biggest polluters to pay for and reduce their emissions.

Logging wouldn’t cease, but the agency could have more flexibility in deciding what forests, and trees, they preserve. DNR anticipates selling credits will eventually add “tens of millions” to the agency’s annual revenue, which is currently upward of $350 million per year.

The revenue from carbon credits would go to the agency’s trust beneficiaries, including rural counties and schools. It could also fund additional conservation projects.

But DNR is facing pressure from all angles to evaluate their obligations to the public.

In 1889, U.S. Congress granted Washington state millions of acres of land to support public institutions: public K-12 grade schools statewide, state universities, other state educational institutions, and prisons. Today, DNR manages 3 million acres of these federally granted trust lands, auctioning off natural resources for revenue.

And another 500,000 acres the state manages were acquired in the ‘20s and ‘30s through tax foreclosures. Unable to manage these logged and abandoned lands, counties gifted them to the state to manage as trust lands. In exchange, the counties and the taxing districts in which the land is located are given most of the revenue from timber sales.

Some rural counties, who largely rely on revenue from DNR’s timber sales for essential services, are nervous that offset projects won’t generate revenue that’s comparable to logging.

Earlier this month, Mason County commissioners sent a letter opposing the state’s Carbon Project, an offset project that includes 400 acres within the county. The Shelton-Mason County Journal reported that commissioners said DNR had not provided Mason County or impacted taxing districts estimates of the likely revenues from the project.

“These lands were given to the state to manage on our behalf, 100 years ago, before we had anything to do with that,” Mason County Commissioner Randy Neatherlin said. “They are our fiduciary, and a fiduciary has a responsibility to its client first, not what it wants, not what it desires, but a fiduciary has a responsibility to the client so we get the best reward off of that investment.”

The “special role” of older trees

Older trees — not “old growth” but those over 150 years old — help sustain biodiversity, said Jerry Franklin, a forest ecologist retired from the University of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service. They also lend to more complex canopies, they are fire resilient and resistant, and they can absorb carbon for thousands of years if left untouched.

A new study of public data from the U.S. Forest Service revealed that existing federal mature and old-growth forests hold nearly 561 million metric tons of carbon. And a 2022 study revealed that old-growth forests store 35 to 70% more carbon, including in the soils, compared to logged stands.

And forests provide myriad benefits to watersheds: naturally regulating streamflows, reducing flood damages and stormwater runoff and replenishing groundwater, to name a few.

Franklin was among a team of scientists whose work led to the protection of millions of acres of old growth on federal land in Washington, Oregon and Northern California with implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. And he helped develop what DNR officials deem a “catch-all” defining guide for old growth on state lands for the west side.

In some forests of the West, Franklin has proposed that mature trees should be considered those naturally regenerated that are 100 years or older. In forests that frequently see fire, he would protect trees of at least 150 years of age, while still allowing work to reduce the risk of future blazes.

Trees that are 100 years old and have been allowed to develop naturally, Franklin said, are just beginning to mature. When they’re 200, they’re truly “old,” he said.

“In the long run, you want to have old trees scattered through even a managed landscape because these older trees play a special role,” he said. “And so it often makes sense in a heavily managed landscape to hold on to even individual older trees, or clusters of older trees, particularly, if they’re the last of a particular age.”

The Supreme Court ruled that logging public land is not a violation of the state constitution but the day-to-day management of the lands is up to the Legislature.

Paula Swedeen, policy director for Conservation Northwest, said the ruling affirmed DNR’s flexibility in how they manage public lands for the public benefit. She doesn’t anticipate sweeping changes to happen overnight, or even in the next few years.

Swedeen, a former wildlife biologist and endangered species policy analyst with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and DNR, said conservationists don’t want to leave beneficiaries like rural counties and schools high and dry.

They instead want more stable funding sources that don’t pit financial sustenance against environmental.

The trifecta, Swedeen said, is protecting rare stands of older trees, finding additional timber through thinning rather than clear cutting and managing plantations — trees planted for timber — on longer rotations to maximize their carbon storage capacity.