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To save the environment, protect DNR’s control of school lands

Capitol State Forest Credit: Jessica Payne/Courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources

In a recent guest opinion, “Stop funding school construction with clear cuts,” Web Hutchins attempted to make the case that the state should stop harvesting timber on forested lands managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Unfortunately, many of the “facts” Mr. Hutchins uses to support his opinion are either misleading or questionable. As a member of the Board of Natural Resources, which oversees timber sales on DNR-managed properties, I would like to share some of the good work the agency is doing to protect our natural areas in the forest, while providing economic benefits for schools, counties and other beneficiaries.
 
In the last 20 years, DNR has made major changes to its land management strategies to protect habitats for threatened and endangered species. These changes have included dedicating hundreds of thousands of acres of land to long-term habitat protection and establishing thorough environmental reviews of proposed harvests to ensure management practices are environmentally sustainable.
 
One notable change DNR made was to stop harvesting old-growth stands. In 2006, DNR formally banned the practice. At that time, the DNR collaborated with the University of Washington to craft procedures that identify and protect newly-identified, old-growth stands, in addition to any old-growth stands that were known at the time.
 
Another change made by DNR was to replace clear cuts with variable retention harvests. In this harvesting method, special habitats — including riparian areas, wetlands and old-growth stands, among others —  are protected. If you live in Western Washington, then you know how wet it is. DNR ends up protecting a lot of land: For the average 40-acre area that is harvested, there is generally another 20-40 acres that will never be cut for various reasons. In addition, within the harvested area, roughly 10 percent of all trees are left to protect various wildlife features or species. 
 
To give you a sense for the scale of this protection, of the 1,273,000 acres of DNR-managed forested land within the range of the endangered marbled murrelet, an incredible 495,000 acres (39 percent) are under protected status. The reasons for conserving these diverse landscapes include protection for streams, wetlands, potentially unstable slopes, and the presence of habitats for threatened and endangered species.
 
Since 2001, all non-federal forest managers are held to a high standard for timber harvesting and forest road construction. Harvesting on steep slopes requires detailed field evaluation and regulatory review to determine if there is significant risk of slope failure; if so, harvesting is not allowed. In addition, by 2016, all forest landowners are legally required to finish retrofitting their entire forest road networks to ensure that all culverts and stream crossings are capable of withstanding 100-year flooding events. In the last decade, a fraction of all landslides have started on these improved roads; the majority of these landslides have either been naturally caused or have occurred where roads had not yet been upgraded.
 
Another example of DNR’s sustainable management is the collaborative efforts with partners such as King County, Forterra, The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and many others to conserve thousands of acres of land as working forests. The majority of these lands have conservation easements that allow timber harvest. This is due to the growing recognition that forest management is compatible with environmental protection.
 
The other point that Mr. Hutchins makes is that the revenues provided from DNR-managed lands are minuscule and irrelevant in today’s world. As a Lewis County commissioner, I have seen firsthand how far this is from realistic. This source of funding is a major component of budgets that have been severely reduced by the recent downturn in the economy. These funds supplement county general fund budgets, as well as the budgets of junior taxing districts such as fire departments, libraries, hospitals, and water and sewer districts, not to mention critical support of K-12 school construction throughout the state. In some counties, this may account for up to 40 percent of their entire operating budget, which provides for essential government services such as law enforcement, jails, courts, and health and human services.
 
Washington state is one of the best places in the world to sustainably grow trees due to its wet climate and volcanic soils. It is also one of the most protective states as far as forest management practices are concerned. While there are still individuals who oppose timber harvesting on public lands, the fact is that environmental groups, regulatory agencies and land managers are increasingly finding common ground in support of working forests because of the tremendous ecological, economic and quality of life benefits they provide for our state.

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