Is Power Plant Timber Controversy More About Politics Than Science?

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) today filed a public records request with the City of Port Angeles to shed light on how city officials determined its opposition to the Power Plant timber sale on trust lands managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Local activists and some local elected officials, including City of Port Angeles Council members, claim that Power Plant will harm water quality in the Elwha River and negatively impact the City’s primary source of drinking water and wildlife.

Yet the city’s own 2018 Water System Plan indicates timber harvesting is not expected to impact the Elwha watershed nor local water supplies. According to the plan:

“Timber cannot be harvested from the Olympic National Park which comprises 83 percent of the watershed. However, the entire lower watershed, including the Indian Creek and Little River tributary watersheds, has experienced extensive logging in decades past. Today this lower area is largely second growth conifer forest among the areas of intermittent agricultural and rural residential use. Ongoing and periodic logging on private and DNR lands is expected to continue in the lower watershed and is not expected to present a problem for the City’s Elwha supply. These activities have not presented a problem for the City’s Elwha Ranney collector supply since it was placed into service in 1977.”

So far, the city has not responded to requests for any recent reports or studies that would reach a different conclusion about the impact of DNR’s sustainable forestry practices on the City’s Elwha water supply.

“If the city’s opposition to the Power Point timber sale is based on politics and appeasing local anti-forestry activists, officials should just say so. Yet the city’s own 2018 water report, additional scientific studies, and information provided by DNR to the courts and elected officials do not support activists’ claims about the sale,” said Heath Heikkila, AFRC’s Government Affairs Director.

Power Plant is a 120-acre Variable Retention Harvest (VRH) timber sale located on DNR state trust lands in Clallam County. Located on local “county trust lands,” the timber sale will generate revenue for county governments and local taxing districts, including schools, fire districts, libraries, and ports.  According to the DNR, the project “will improve the long-term health and function of these forests by restoring them to a more healthy state.” After final harvest, the forest will contain a mixture of large mature leave trees, a predominant cohort of 25-year-old trees, and areas of newly established seedlings. As the harvested area matures, it will develop a multi-layered canopy with a diverse mix of species.

Despite vocal opposition from local activists, the Clallam County Board of Commissioners supported the project after it received an extensive briefing from DNR officials at a May 16, 2023 work session. The Washington State Board of Natural Resources voted to approve the sale for auction at its June 6, 2023 meeting.

The DNR has vigorously defended the sustainability of the timber sale as anti-forestry groups have sought to halt the timber sale in state court and pressure elected officials to oppose the sale. On September 11, DNR responded to a September 4 letter sent by other elected officials “to dispel some of the inaccuracies we have heard about the sale.” Under penalty of perjury, the agency’s professional lands managers and scientists filed declarations in court documenting that the timber sale followed all state and federal environmental laws and regulations and would not cause harm to water resources, endangered wildlife and other values.

On June 30, The Earth Law Center, the Center for Whale Research, and the Keystone Species Alliance filed an appeal challenging the Power Plant sale in Clallam County Superior Court. On July 25, Judge Simon Barnhard ruled in favor of DNR and denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction noting “…the record demonstrates the respondents followed their rules and procedures, engaged in a deliberative process, and specifically considered the unique aspects of the project.” The judge also noted that “the Appellants have not demonstrated that they have a clear legal right to relief, as the likelihood of them prevailing on the merits is low.”

The proposed harvest area is less than 0.03% of the watershed. The vast majority of the watershed is federal land (mostly national park land) where no timber harvests occur. The scientific evidence supports DNR’s conclusion that there will be no discernable change in summer low flows or peak flows in the Elwha River with such a small change (.03%) in forest cover associated with the timber harvest.  The city’s own 2018 Water System Plan supports the same conclusion.