Commentary: ‘Carbon reserves’ on state lands aren’t the solution

The Washington Department of Natural Resources ‘carbon reserves’ policy is the same failed approach of the past 30 years but this time under a new name.

NICK SMITH | American Forest Resource Council | Apr 17, 2022

Seen from the air on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, a new state carbon reserve near Preston, in King County east of Seattle, sets aside state forest lands for climate and biodiversity. Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

The Washington Department of Natural Resources ‘carbon reserves’ policy is the same failed approach of the past 30 years but this time under a new name. When it comes to addressing the climate crisis, the worst thing we can do is walk away from our forests and hope bugs, disease, tree mortality, and catastrophic wildfires don’t destroy the resources, wildlife, and communities we’re trying to protect.

Our public forests are burning at alarming rates while demand for affordable housing and lumber are on the rise. The state’s own forest sector is vulnerable as we import more finished wood products from other places that don’t share our stringent forest practices. Washingtonians are looking for effective solutions that balance society’s needs with conserving the environment. The carbon reserve policy isn’t a balanced solution, it’s a political decision.

The Yakima Herald-Republic’s April 10 editorial, which contends setting aside just 10,000 acres represents just a “tiny step,” misses some important context. Nearly half of DNR trust lands in Western Washington are not available for sustainable timber management due to conservation plans and past policy decisions. The DNR also has policies in place to conserve old and mature forest stands. Nearly 90% of stands over 120 years old are permanently set aside from harvest.

Not included in the DNR’s policy are the hundreds of thousands of acres of federally owned forest lands that are set aside for endangered or threatened wildlife species, congressionally designated wilderness areas, and other areas that are off-limits to forest management under the Northwest Forest Plan.

These lands are burning up. Nearly half of the acres burned in Washington last year burned on land protected by the U.S. Forest Service.

The state’s similar path toward non-management is already having an impact. Timber harvests on these public working forests in Western Washington will fall by more than 26% this fiscal year and may fall further in future years.

Washington’s forest sector depends on a continuous and predictable supply of timber from DNR trust lands to stay in business, retain workers and invest in their facilities. Without this supply, the sector will lose more of the jobs and manufacturing facilities that are necessary to manage lands and compete in a global market. For example, the state suffers from a lack of forest sector infrastructure in Central Washington that is necessary to thin overstocked stands and reduce severe wildfire risks.

The DNR is required by the state constitution, and state and federal laws, to manage state trust lands on behalf of defined beneficiaries. Every year, sustainable timber harvests on these lands generate nearly $200 million for public services. As working forests, DNR state trust lands are managed under modern forest practice rules and a State Lands Habitat Conservation Plan that was intended to ensure a continuous timber supply while also providing for clean water, habitat for wildlife and recreation.

Further reducing land available for timber harvest not only hurts public schools and community services, it also threatens Washington’s ability to produce the only building material that is renewable, requires less energy to produce, and one that actually stores carbon. Reducing this infrastructure also disrupts the cycle of forestry — the continuous planting and growing of trees for wood products — that results in net zero carbon emissions and discourages the conversion of carbon-sequestering forests to carbon-emitting non-forests.

Washington’s state trust lands have traditionally been among the most well-managed public forests in the West, demonstrating that it’s possible to provide sustainable, carbon-storing wood products while conserving other important forest values. The carbon reserves policy isn’t a tiny step forward, but a giant leap backward.

Nick Smith is public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council, representing Washington’s forest sector that depends on timber management on DNR state trust lands.