What could Washington State Forest management look like for “All the People”?

What could Washington State Forest management look like for “All the People”?

Conservation Northwest / Oct 21, 2021 / Protecting Wildlands, State Trust Lands

We believe that DNR forest management should be guided by actions that result in long-term ecological health, mitigate climate change, and support sustainable economic contributions to the state as a whole and to local communities.

By Paula Swedeen, Ph.D., Policy Director

Conservation Northwest, along with our co-plaintiffs Washington Environmental Council, the Olympic Forest Coalition, and several local residents, get our day in the Washington State Supreme Court, today October 21 in the case of Conservation NW, et al. v. Commissioner of Public Lands, et al. over the future of State Forests and other state public lands.

You can watch a recording of oral arguments at: www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2021101173


Natural tree stands on the Capitol State Forest near Olympia. Photo: Paula Swedeen

As we recently outlined in an op-ed in The Seattle Times, we argue that the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and prior court rulings such as the 1984 case of County of Skamania v. State, which observe a duty of “undivided loyalty” to named fiduciary trusts, have fundamentally misread the State Constitution’s plain language that reads “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people”.

We contend that while revenue from management of these state public lands indeed must go to the named beneficiaries (e.g., K-12 school construction and state universities), decisions on how these lands are managed can and should take into account broader public interests.

Additional history and context is also available in this backgrounder from our friends at Washington Environmental Council, and in this February 2020 blog from Post Alley.

If we prevail, what could this look like? Big picture, we think that state forest management should be guided by actions that result in long-term ecological health, mitigate climate change, and support sustainable economic contributions to the state as a whole as well as to local communities.

We believe that managing for these goals better supports the needs of rural communities or Trust beneficiaries in the long term. The status quo interpretation of undivided fiduciary loyalty (or limiting public lands benefits) to the trusts prevents DNR from shifting to these broader public goals in the stewardship of the public lands they manage, while also continuing to support their traditional beneficiaries and stakeholders.

A major impact of DNR’s current approach is that State Forests are primarily managed as tree farms not forests–with some exceptions where they have obligations under federal laws like the Endangered Species Act–and thus DNR is either perpetuating existing plantations or turning the small amount of remaining natural forest into biologically depleted shadows of their former selves.

Managing Washington’s forests for ecological health means reintroducing complexity, which is a hallmark of natural forests; diversity of species, diversity of heights and tree densities, small gaps in the canopy on wetter Westside forests and patchy distribution of trees in drier Eastside forests, and abundant and well-distributed larger (more then 20 inches in diameter) live and dead trees. The reason to manage for these characteristics rather than for the simpler structure and lower plant diversity of plantations is that naturally complex forests are more resilient to drought, and uncharacteristic fire and insect and disease outbreaks. They also provide higher quality, year-round habitat for native fish and wildlife, from threatened salmon to fishers and elk.

For an agency charged with managing forests for the public, especially in times of climate change, having resilient forests means being able to continue to provide benefits for a long, long time. We argue that is DNR’s duty.

State Forests provide habitat for fish and wildlife, clean water, outdoor recreation opportunities and more in addition to providing timber harvests. Photo: WDFW

In Western Washington, we are fortunate to have types of forests in which managing for resilience also provides for society’s needs. The length of logging rotations are the limiting factor for ecologically healthy forests – big trees. Longer rotations (e.g., 80 years) sequester more carbon, both in the forest and in long-lived wood products than shorter rotations (e.g. 40 years), which we need in order to draw down excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

While some argue that by pumping out lumber faster, short rotation forestry is a better climate strategy, detailed life cycle analyses show that decay from wood products over time, including wood products already in use, results in significant emissions and wood production does not compensate for the amount of carbon that forests naturally sequester. We go into more detail about all of this in the Seattle Times op-ed I mentioned above.

Older forests also provide better water flow at a watershed scale. Low summer flows limit salmon habitat and create water shortages for humans, wildlife and agriculture. In a modeling study in the Nisqually Watershed, older forests provide six times the flow in the hotter drier months of the year than watershed on a 40-year rotation.

The beautiful reality of such a balanced, sustainable management approach is that it provides more timber volume to harvest on a sustained yield basis. In other words, once a landscape is on a 70-80 year rotation, it can be managed on regularized basis to provide a steady flow of harvested wood products at a higher volume than managing the same landscape on a 40 year rotation.

More resilience, better fish and wildlife habitat, a bigger tool to fight climate change, more water in drought and less in winter storm events, and more and more steady wood production for both revenue and jobs in the forest sector. What’s not to like?

DNR tells us they can’t make this transition because it will not provide enough revenue to their beneficiaries. But that argument applies only to the short-term, not after they achieve this more optimal condition, and it does not take into account other means of funding public services. DNR claims they can’t even think about what it might take to transition their lands to longer rotations or conserving the older, more natural and complex forests they have now for fear of not “meeting their Trust mandate.”

If we prevail in court, that kind of thinking will no longer be supported by the law. The stakeholders who put the most pressure on DNR to keep the status quo, to harvest even more in the near future, won’t be able to yield the Trust mandate club over DNR’s proverbial head.

State forests like this one near the Nooksack River provide habitat for marbled murrelets, fishers, elk, salmon and many other species, as well as opportunities for outdoor recreation. Photo: Chase Gunnell

It will also be easier to find a way to conserve more marbled murrelet habitat, which DNR is harvesting now but which the species needs to have a chance at surviving in Washington state.  Not coincidentally, keeping murrelet habitat intact and growing more will also result in avoiding CO2 emissions and drawing down more in the future.

In eastern Washington, an “all the people” management approach would mean doing bona fide forest health treatments that leave big fire resilient trees, grow more of these, and reduce density of small trees that don’t have commercial value. Present management is constrained by a Catch-22 to try to solve a problem by perpetuating it: DNR attempts to “pay for” forest health by harvesting (often clearcutting) the same larger commercial sized trees that are needed to re-establish stand and landscape resilience.

If we win in court, DNR will be able to save those big trees and also clean up slash piles that otherwise later serve as fuel for large wildfires in eastern Washington.

We understand that the prospect of change creates uncertainty and causes fear. Even though only 1-6 percent of school construction funding comes from DNR timber sales, a minor amount, as state Superintendent for Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who sits on the Board of Natural Resources, stated publicly in 2019, how will that income be replaced? What are the implications for county trust lands, which are linked through state law? How will communities sustain short term job losses from the temporary reduction of DNR logs to local mills?

These are important questions and challenges, but they are not unsolvable. Through this case, we see opportunity to expand and improve on how DNR can serve local communities.

Conservation Northwest has been advocating that the State finance additional acquisition of forest land and other income producing assets. If beneficiaries want more income instead of less, and the broader public wants more ecological and social benefits from DNR’s land base, let’s increase the land base. Washington could finance an expansion of DNR’s asset management through issuance of green bonds.

We see a future with more forests managed for higher sustained yield and public recreational access, more commercial real estate leases in urban areas, with solar panels on their roofs, and more fallow lands in eastern Washington (appropriately placed to avoid wildlife connectivity corridors, sage grouse habitat and taking good farmland out of production) to lease for solar and wind farms, producing a stable flow of income to beneficiaries and climate and other benefits to the public.

We have a vision for the future of state land management that results in more economic prosperity. This vision goes hand in hand with a more resilient ecological foundation upon which we all depend.

A tour of more natural forest stands on the Capitol State Forest near Olympia. Photo: Paula Swedeen