Here in Washington State, it’s easy to take our forests for granted. After all, we have millions of acres of forestland across the state, including more than 2.2 million acres under the administration of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While we have taken action to protect old growth forests – defined by the state as pre-1850 forests – there are other state-owned timber stands that are just as environmentally important but currently unprotected. We should protect these special places while still supporting jobs, rural economies, and funding for public services.
I’m talking about mature “legacy forests” – forests that were selectively or partially logged about a century ago but have since naturally regenerated into structurally complex forests that are in their prime for trapping carbon from the atmosphere and providing habitat for a variety of plants and animals, including threatened and endangered species.
These forests of roughly 100-year-old trees only account for a small percentage of DNR-managed forests in King County, a total of about 15,000 acres. Across the entirety of Washington State, they comprise about 77,000 unprotected acres of state-owned lands. These lands hold an outsized value for helping us battle climate change and protect our air, water, and habitat.
A few months ago, the King County Council, at my urging, sent a letter that helped put the brakes on the sale of approximately an 100-acre legacy forest parcel, known as the Wishbone sale, that was set to be auctioned by DNR. When older forests are cut down, carbon is released from both the use of the trees and from the underlying soil for decades. That timber stand alone could have released as much as 50,000 metric tons of carbon pollution. Further, we need to preserve legacy forests wherever we find them.
While you can certainly regrow trees, it’s much harder to recreate a forest, let alone a mature legacy forest. These forests are made up of trees in their peak for trapping carbon. A single Douglas fir (the predominant species in our region) can capture roughly 40 pounds of carbon dioxide in its 100th year and over 2,000 pounds over its lifetime. These trees also absorb pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxides and particulates from the atmosphere.
Legacy forests also support a wide range of biodiversity, including plants and animals that depend on that specific habitat for survival. Protecting that habitat helps our entire ecosystem, a vital need.
I recognize that there is some forgone revenue when we preserve, rather than sell off, these forests. They hold a lot of value as timber, certainly. Bids for the Wishbone sale started at roughly $1.6 million, with the potential to convert the timber into much more revenue down the road. Offsetting that revenue is a cost for harvesting legacy forests.
The Environmental Protection Agency now estimates the social cost of carbon as between $120 and $340 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. That means the Wishbone sale alone could have generated up to $16.6 million in climate costs. Locally, those costs include higher temperatures, landslide and flood risks, and increased wildfire risk.
The legacy forests cost-benefit equation swings even further towards preservation when you consider that we have state programs available to acquire replacement woodlands that can be harvested instead of the legacy forests. These existing programs, such as the Natural Climate Solutions program and the Trust Land Transfer program, are important tools that allow the state to acquire private timber lands and keep those lands in active forestry, rather than see those areas converted to development and sprawl. The legislature should continue to robustly fund these programs. Acquiring private timber lands at risk of conversion is a win-win, maintaining the jobs and economic benefits of the timber industry while protecting rural character and quality of life.
I believe it should be a top priority of the next Lands Commissioner, an office I seek, to end the destruction of these valuable mature legacy forests. If I am elected I will invite local leaders, the state DNR. and the Legislature to come together and take advantage of this opportunity to identify these vital forests and develop a plan to preserve and protect them for generations to come.
Dave Upthegrove is the chair of the King County Council and is running statewide for Commissioner of Public Lands.