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WA timber sale blocked as judge orders climate change study

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: April 2, 2024, 7:57am

SEATTLE — Washington state can’t auction an East King County forest for logging without first analyzing the local project’s climate change impacts, a judge ruled last week, blocking the controversial timber sale and putting officials under pressure to change how they evaluate public lands for harvesting.

The agency responsible for such auctions is reviewing Thursday’s decision, while advocates who challenged the project in court are calling the ruling a significant win. The Wishbone sale was scheduled for last July with a $1.62 million minimum bid, then paused when opponents sued the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Metropolitan King County Council members and the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe had also raised concerns.

“This is a major victory for carbon rich, biodiverse forests and the laws that protect them,” John Talberth, president at the Center for Sustainable Economy, said in a statement about the judge’s decision.

DNR will confer with the Washington State Department of Ecology about next steps, Duane Emmons, the agency’s assistant deputy supervisor for state uplands, said in an interview. At stake is how DNR generates timber revenue, which helps fund schools, county governments and other services.

King County Superior Court Judge Kristin Ballinger sided with Talberth’s organization and others that challenged DNR’s attempted sale of 4.7 million board feet of timber on 102 acres near the Tolt River, outside Duvall.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has sought to auction more than 100 acres of timber near Duvall for commercial logging. But a King County judge ruled last week that the agency must analyze the project’s climate change impacts.

Sources: Esri, Washington State Department of Natural Resources (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

The organizations accused DNR of failing to consider the negative effects of harvesting what they describe as mature or “legacy” forests, characterized by large trees that range up to 110 years old. They estimated the commercial logging project would emit 48,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The Wishbone area was previously logged in the 1920s and 1930s, so it isn’t a pristine “old growth” forest off-limits to timber sales. But it’s developed naturally since then and includes trees that climb 150 to 200 feet in the air, leading advocates to contend that it and similar forests should also be preserved.

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Ballinger ruled that “DNR did not conduct any meaningful analysis of carbon emissions from the Wishbone timber sale” and made no attempt to study alternative uses of the area, such as less-intensive logging, leasing trees to polluters as carbon credits or opening the space to scientific research. She ordered DNR to assess the project’s climate impacts and alternatives before trying to advance the sale again.

The agency’s environmental review for the Wishbone auction looked at the effects of timber sales generally, rather than focusing on the specific project, the judge found. DNR said the project’s carbon emissions would be minor and said the forests it manages across the state collectively store more carbon than they emit. Ballinger rejected those arguments.

“Even if it is true that DNR’s managed lands capture more carbon than they release, it does not follow that individual logging projects will result in a minor amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” her ruling said.

At a local level, Ballinger’s decision is being hailed by admirers of the Wishbone area, a cluster of woods and wetlands about 30 miles from Seattle via highway and gravel road. They say mature forests promote biodiversity, provide animal habitat, store carbon and combat climate change better than forests logged more recently and regrown as homogenous tree plantations.

Last year, a timber industry group said pausing the Wishbone sale and similar harvests would force developers to use more carbon-intensive building materials like concrete and steel and reduce funding for essential public services, while the Snoqualmie Tribe called for DNR to account for the climate impacts of logging the area, “not just the revenue that may be realized.”

Hiking through the Wishbone area last summer, advocates noted cedar, hemlock, maple, cottonwood and alder trees, as well as huckleberries, gooseberries and devil’s club plants. They pointed to huge stumps with ax notches left by early 20th century loggers and tree snags occupied by bugs and birds.

“It’s a beautiful forest,” said Jim Oliver, a regional coordinator at the Center for Responsible Forestry. “It shows what happens when trees are actually allowed to grow back in an undisturbed way.”

More broadly, last week’s decision could change how DNR handles other properties. For decades, the agency has engaged in logging based on the understanding that it’s required to make money for its beneficiaries. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that the agency isn’t constitutionally obligated to harvest forests, giving it more leeway.

Although Ballinger issued her decision only on the Wishbone sale, it’s one of several clashes over DNR timber auctions in the past few years and the second time a judge has cited DNR for failing to assess climate change impacts. Advocates won a similar case in Jefferson County in 2022, though that ruling came after sales went through and trees were cut down.

“For the court to say that the climate consequences … need to be taken into consideration” is crucial, said Talberth, from the Center for Sustainable Economy. “The opportunity to reform how DNR does business is upon us.”

DNR’s Emmons said the judge criticized the agency on procedural grounds, rather than objecting to the state’s overall forests strategy.

“The court didn’t rule on our management of these lands. This case was about the SEPA process,” he said, referring to the State Environmental Policy Act. “The court ruled that the department needs to do an individual sale-by-sale analysis of the carbon and climate impacts of harvesting timber.”

DNR hasn’t done analyses on that level before and isn’t aware of other jurisdictions to emulate, Emmons said, so the agency will seek guidance from the Department of Ecology on how to proceed. An appeal of Ballinger’s ruling is still possible, he said.

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