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Court ruling clears way for carbon storage projects on state logging lands

A timber industry group and two counties challenged a plan to set aside about 10,000 acres of trees to absorb carbon dioxide and help combat climate change.

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: April 19, 2024, 8:40am

Forests on Washington’s public logging lands can be left uncut if the state finds that leaving trees standing to fight climate change is a better use than timber sales, a state judge ruled earlier this month.

Two years ago, the Department of Natural Resources proposed a project to lease 10,000 acres of state land for carbon capture projects, prompting a lawsuit from Lewis and Skagit counties and a forestry industry trade group.

The two counties and the American Forest Resource Council argued that the state did not do a proper environmental analysis of the project, including what it could mean financially for schools and communities that rely on timber revenue.

But earlier this month, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in the agency’s favor, saying the state can manage its lands as it sees fit – not specifically for logging – and that the department did comply with environmental review requirements.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a statement that the ruling would expand the department’s funding base by adding carbon sequestration to its list of possible revenues.

“Our public forests have multiple benefits and must be stewarded to achieve multiple goals and live up to our values,” Franz said.

Environmentalists, who have pushed the state to set aside public forestland for capturing and storing carbon, praised the decision.

Rachel Baker, forest program director at Washington Conservation Action, said the group saw this ruling as the first test of a state Supreme Court decision issued two years ago. In that ruling, the high court unanimously decided that the department must manage its forests to serve all people as opposed to solely maximizing its revenue from timber harvests.

Washington Conservation Action is one of three environmental groups that intervened in the more recent case to defend the carbon capture project, which the Department of Natural Resources proposed in 2022.

The agency wanted to open 10,000 acres in western Washington to be leased for carbon sequestration – a first-of-its-kind project on state lands. The carbon storage leasing would provide economic value similar to logging the department wrote when the project was first announced.

Carbon forestry projects can take different forms but often involve leaving trees intact so they can absorb carbon dioxide. Projects like this can be translated into credits that can be bought and sold on carbon markets.

Baker said the state’s proposal was specifically dedicated to conserving older, more complex trees.

Lewis and Skagit counties and the American Forest Resource Council said the state was rushing the project, that leaving the 10,000 acres unlogged would not help the state meet its climate goals, and that it could result in a loss of revenue for schools, colleges and other public services.

American Forest Resource Council Spokesperson Nick Smith said the group still has serious concerns about the project but hadn’t settled on its next steps in the legal fight. They could appeal.

“We remain strongly opposed to any scheme that places state trust lands into carbon offset markets,” Smith wrote in an email. “Sustainably managing these forests and using Washington-made wood products are superior climate solutions.”

Conservation groups who support the project say carbon sequestration can have the same financial benefits as logging while addressing climate goals.

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“It’s all a balancing act, but this carbon project is a way that we can meet ecological and social goals around protecting these forests while also providing revenue to rural communities,” Baker said.

The ruling likely marks a next step in the state rethinking how it manages public lands. With a new lands commissioner set to be elected in November, Baker said she is hoping the administration will embrace these rulings and look for more carbon projects.

In recent years, the Legislature has considered bills to allow the Department of Natural Resources to sell carbon credits directly in a carbon market. Under current state law, the department is not explicitly allowed to do so. But the agency can lease lands to other groups who can sell the credits and still generate some revenue.

A legislative proposal allowing direct agency sales of the credits has yet to win final approval.


Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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