Washington State Agency Fails to Disclose Environmental, Social Impacts of Carbon Plan

By Matt Comisky

The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is rushing to approve a ‘carbon project’ that would remove 10,000 acres of operable forested state trust lands in western Washington in order to lease the acres to private interests under the guise of reducing carbon emissions.

Instead of selling timber to local manufacturers as required by law, the carbon scheme seeks to sell carbon credits in an unregulated voluntary carbon market for a fraction of the timber’s fair market value. The plan would effectively shut down thousands of acres of working forests to help greenwash polluters while neglecting the DNR’s fiduciary responsibility to state trust land beneficiaries.

In a unanimous opinion in Conservation NW v. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the Washington State Supreme Court earlier this year reaffirmed that the Enabling Act of 1889 and the state constitution created trusts that benefit defined beneficiaries. The court ruled that DNR has a real, enforceable trust mandate to manage state trust lands with an undivided loyalty to defined beneficiaries. The court recognized the agency meets its obligations by sustainably harvesting timber and generating revenue to support schools, universities, and other public services that benefit all Washingtonians.

Despite this strong mandate, the department is pressing forward with a scheme that will cost beneficiaries millions of dollars of non-tax revenue that could be used to improve public school facilities, purchase emergency equipment for firefighters and first responders, support libraries (such as Timberland Regional Library), and maintain county roads, among other public priorities.

State trust lands in Western Washington are managed under a 70-to-100-year Habitat Conservation Plan. This agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service removed nearly 50 percent of the roughly 1.4 million acres of trust lands in Western Washington from management. Yet anti-forestry groups continue seeking to undo the trust mandate and remove even more acres from management.

DNR recently concluded a brief 14-day public comment period after rejecting requests from beneficiaries, local governments, state legislators and the forest sector to extend the comment period to give stakeholders more time to analyze the project and comment. The agency completed a simple State Environmental Policy Act checklist that provided no specifics, such as project locations or impacts to the 2019 Sustainable Harvest Calculation (SHC). DNR also has failed to respond to letters from about two dozen legislators since the spring, including a letter from legislative leaders and a letter from 22 legislators from expressing concerns about the project and the lack of public transparency.

Shortly after the close of the public comment period, DNR released maps of the proposed project areas along with estimates of volume and live standing carbon on the parcels. Piecing together what little information the agency has provided, the carbon leases are expected to generate about 90 percent less revenue than traditional timber harvests. Yet the agency is failing to fully analyze the project’s impact on funding for schools and other public services. Not only is this analysis required by the State Environmental Policy Act, it also goes to the core of the DNR’s fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the trust lands.

The agency has ignored calls from beneficiaries to properly and legally account for how the scheme affects Washington’s environment, communities, wildlife, and the current and future management of these working forests. This project also risks the forest infrastructure needed to address forest health concerns and to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and associated emissions. The Department needs to analyze this potential outcome and how it will affect the environment and local communities.

Such an analysis would clearly demonstrate that discontinuing management of our working forests is the wrong solution for climate change. Research finds that active forest management is more effective in capturing and storing atmospheric carbon in forest and wood products. Conversely, a ‘no-management’ policy results in increased carbon emissions and reduced timber supply at the expense of rural communities and public service providers.

Leakage is when the reduction in timber supply is replaced with increased timber outputs from other forestland owners, other regions of the U.S., and other countries. Substitution occurs when more carbon-intensive building products, such as concrete and steel, are substituted for a wood product because that wood product is not available or has become too expensive. These alternatives are not beneficial to the environment or the communities that benefit from management of these lands.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have both identified scientifically based sustainable forest management and the use of long-term wood products for building as key tools in the efforts to mitigate carbon in the atmosphere. Even the Washington Legislature (in RCW 70A.45.090) recognizes the important role the forest products sector plays in mitigating carbon emissions.

Sustainable forest management essentially means repeating a never-ending cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, and sending that harvested wood – that is roughly 50 percent carbon by weight – off to become wood products, especially building products, that we use every day.

By removing state trust lands from timber management, the DNR is breaking that sustainable forest management cycle in favor of a scheme that will not reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses but benefits deep-pocketed polluters.

Climate leadership is not a short-sighted, politically driven preservation of trees in a carbon scheme. Real climate leadership is working hard to meet sustainable harvest levels to assure local wood products are here for current and future generations to meet our housing and construction needs along with other wood products we use every day.

The DNR should be held accountable for a scheme that rewards polluters while failing state trust land beneficiaries and the people of Washington.

If you agree, you can express your concerns by emailing the Washington State Board of Natural Resources at [email protected] and the Commissioner of Public Lands at [email protected]

Matt Comisky oversees the American Forest Resource Council’s Washington state program of work related to trust lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. He has worked in the forest products industry as a forest engineer, forester, and policy analyst for nearly 25 years in Washington state for both public and private land managers.

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