We Have to Save our “Legacy” Forests


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.


  1. “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.” Those numbers seem low. Fast growth and pest resistance make Douglas-fir a carbon-storage champion. The German carbon-offset NGO For Tomorrow reports that one tree absorbs 3717 kg (7,434 pounds) in its first 80 years, consistent with others’ calculations. And since coastal Doug firs can easily live 600 to 800, sometimes 1,300 to1,400, years, there’s a whole lot of carbon to be sucked up after 80.
    Climate change and wildfire are of course wild cards. But the case for preserving “legacy forests” is even better than you think!

  2. Well said Dave! We need to keep legacy forests standing and storing their massive amounts of carbon, in order to secure a livable climate.

  3. As the furthest downballot statewide office, Lands Commissioner has too often been viewed by ambitious politicos as a mere steepingstone to bigger and better things. We have had some good ones, like Peter Goldmark and Jennifer Belcher, but also some, like the present office holder Hilary Franz, who seems to have done nothing of note other than cast greedy eyes toward the Governor’s mansion.

    But perhaps that’s being a little hard on Franz. In the waning days of her tenure, she has finally gotten serious and is pouring her energies into adding Smokey Bear to the menu of Washington license plates. Finally, a cause to fire the passions of the most jaded cynics!

    Dave Upthegrove, should he move into the Lands Commissioner office, will likely join the ranks of its well remembered occupants like Goldmark, Belcher and Brian Boyle. Upthegrove has long been involved in all kinds of forest issues, which have been a particular interest of his in the legislature as well as the county council. He has walked the talk, and always been the kind of person who actually shows up to talk, and help, on tree issues both around the picnic table and out in the woods.

    After eight years of Franz, the state and that office rather desperately need someone who really thinks and knows about trees. Those legacy forests on state lands are among our few examples left of natural forests. Planted, so to speak, by the hand of God rather than an underpaid someone hurriedly doing piece work with a bag of artificially cultured or cloned “supertrees.” Franz has done nothing but ignore legacy forests as they have continued to fall.

    It’s been well proven that big old trees directly affect local climates by combing rain out of the clouds. There are innumerable reasons to not cut down old natural forests, such as watersheds and fish, and countless species, some of which are still just being discovered. As well as that certain something, never seen in artificial tree plantations, that is impossible to define – but you immediately “know it when you see it.”

    It’s high time that the voters choose a real tree lover for this important office rather than just another steppingstoner.

  4. Good piece by Dave Upthegrove. The few remaining Legacy Forests are worth more if left standing. They are enormous reservoirs of stored carbon and they continue to sequester. They are critical habitat for numerous species. They play an outsized role in water quality and watershed health. If the State would stop cutting them all down we would eventually have more old growth forests again. Wouldn’t that be a great legacy?

  5. If a tree falls down in the forest, does it release carbon?

    Do unmanaged forests burn faster than managed forests?

    Is it easier to plant a tree than address real carbon cycle problems?

    Do many biosequestration activists fly or drive to conferences?


    Let’s do the right thing but not because its easy-to-do virtue signaling.


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