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Doing Something about Losing the Timber Base
The forest products industry has seen a huge change over the last 35 years or so. Much of that change has been linked to massive reductions in the amount of timber available to support the economics of the industry.
Today in Washington, an approach called “Reconveyance” threatens the loss of hundreds of thousands of additional acres of productive forestlands owned and managed on behalf of the people of the state by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A recent Reconveyance request by Whatcom County would, if allowed, withdraw nearly 9,000 acres of timberland from the resource base dedicated to commercial timber production. A challenge to that withdrawal is now before the Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board.
Lest anyone believe the loss of land available for timber harvest is a small thing, consider a 2007 (pre-recession) report to the Washington State Legislature authored by the DNR. According to the report:
“Timber harvest has dramatically declined in the past 15 years on all ownership categories, from 5.9 billion board feet per year to 3.6 billion board feet per year, a 40 percent aggregate decline. The greatest declines have been on national forests as a result of federal policy. Unanticipated harvest declines have also occurred on state trust lands, on western Washington tribal lands, on industrial forest lands, and on western Washington non-industrial private lands, largely in response to changing regulations and market conditions and to land conversions.”
Roots of Reconveyance
The roots of reconveyance go back to Depression times when lands owned by a variety of companies and individuals ended up on county tax rolls because owners failed to pay taxes. The lands had mostly been logged, often not too carefully. When the counties obtained control of the lands, they also had to shoulder the burden of caring for the lands. Legislation was passed allowing the counties to convey the lands to the state agency known today as the DNR. Counties seized on what seemed like an opportunity to get rid of unwanted lands. The DNR today manages the lands for timber production with revenue going to schools, universities, ports, counties, and the state coffers.
Later legislation allowed counties to request “reconveyance” meaning the DNR is required to convey lands it manages for timber back to the county if certain conditions are met, but only for use as public parks.
Groups Using Reconveyances
Today, special interest groups, land trusts, and pop-environmental organizations have seized on the opportunity to request reconveyance as a way to “preserve” land forever. Whatcom County and its special interest allies, for example, envision an eventual old growth forest nearly untrodden by the foot of man as the fate of the 8,800 acres requested for reconveyance.
Washington’s Growth Management Act requires counties to designate forest lands to be “primarily devoted to growing trees for long-term commercial timber production on land that can be economically and practically managed for such production,” and then support the designation with an appropriate Comprehensive Plan and zoning code regulations. The failure to support the timber industry by redesignating forest land as public parks is the basis of the challenge.
The challenge has statewide significance for the forest products industry. In Whatcom County, the lands being reconveyed are zoned Commercial Forest. Both the Washington Supreme Court and the various Hearings Boards have found that forest resource land designated to support and enhance the forest industry cannot lightly be converted to other uses. The challenge contends Whatcom County, or any other county in the state, is precluded from applying to the DNR for reconveyance on lands zoned for Commercial Forestry. If the county wants to apply for reconveyance, it must first redesignate the lands in compliance with state law.
This case has the potential to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres statewide for the preservation and enhancement of the forest products industry yet, for the most part, the industry has been relatively quiet on the issue, allowing numerous reconveyances to take place in recent years.
To learn more about the challenge to Whatcom County’s attempt to convert lands dedicated by law to support the timber industry to lands used for a public park, visit http://newsaboutthereconveyancechallenge.blogspot.com. If you agree that removing timber lands from the harvest cycle harms the industry, share the blog with your friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media sites.
Jack Petree has written about forest product industry issues for nearly 30 years. His challenge to the Growth Management Hearings Board reflects his concern about the loss of productive forest lands in Washington State and the lack of adequate opposition to that loss.
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