King County ‘Wishbone’ Ruling Got it Wrong: Why Using Timber from DNR State Trust Lands is a Net Positive for Our Climate

Does permanently setting aside mature forests on Department of Natural Resources (DNR) managed state trust lands provide a larger carbon benefit than harvesting and storing that carbon in Washington-made wood products?

This question is relevant after anti-forestry activists sued and convinced a King County Judge to halt the Wishbone timber sale in late March, ordering the DNR to conduct a carbon accounting of forestry operations at the project-level, rather than the landscape-level. If left to stand, the Judge’s decision could have significant implications for various state projects by requiring a narrow, project-level analysis of carbon emissions, rather than considering the overall climate benefits of projects.

AFRC says focusing solely on emissions results in an extremely incomplete characterization of any project’s impacts on climate change. When it comes to DNR forest management activities, halting timber sales will actually increase carbon emissions as the demand shifts to more carbon intensive building materials or imported lumber and wood products transported from faraway countries that don’t share the state’s commitment to democratic values or environmental protections.

“Any short-term, harvest related emissions from an individual timber project are dwarfed by the carbon sequestration and storage benefits of actively managing these DNR working forests and using more Washington-made wood products,” said AFRC’s Heath Heikkila. “Forest carbon accounting, whether at the landscape-level or the project-level, must consider ‘leakage’ such as importing wood products from other countries, and ‘substitution’ where more carbon-intensive projects like concrete and steel are used instead of wood.”

AFRC recently commissioned an accounting of an individual DNR timber sale conducted by CORRIM and the University of Washington’s CINTRAFOR.  Researchers used data from the DNR Penny Alderwood timber sale in Jefferson County and publicly available U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data to conduct a full carbon accounting of the timber sale using established life cycle assessment data on forestry, forest operations, and manufacturing of products that were produced from that sale. The full study is available for download here.

After accounting for substitution and leakage, the study found that for every acre of state trust lands that are harvested to produce carbon-friendly wood products, an additional 11.71 metric tons of CO2 are stored or offset in the same year, compared to the no-harvest scenario.

Because Washington state law requires reforestation after harvest, this climate benefit grows to as much as 72 metric tons per acre over the non-harvest alternative as new trees are planted and reach the age of 40 years. The harvest of a mature DNR stand also yields a high percentage of long-lived wood products, which results in a high and efficient transfer of carbon stored safely in the built environment.

Dr. Elaine Oneil, the Director of Science and Sustainability at CORRIM, says a full carbon calculation indicates there is no carbon “debt” after harvest when accounting for substitution and leakage.

“Examining outcomes at the forest scale misses most of the impacts and benefits that can accrue from a managed forest and wood product system.  Real climate benefits can only be determined by looking at a scale that measures the likely atmospheric impacts of our activities.  At that systemwide scale, carbon debt doesn’t exist, especially when the wood products can serve as substitutes for products with a higher carbon footprint,” Dr. Oneil said.

Under the state constitution and state and federal laws, timber sales on DNR state trust lands generate critical funding for public schools, public safety, health care and other community services, while supporting clean air, clean water, recreational opportunities, and other additional benefits.  Half of all state trust lands in western Washington are already set aside from sustainable timber management.  Federal forests, which make up about 44 percent of Washington’s forests, are overwhelmingly set aside from timber harvesting.

Scientists at the local and international level, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recognize the climate benefits of forest management, timber harvest and the use of wood products. In its 4th Assessment, the IPCC found that, over the long-term, a forest management strategy “aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

Setting aside more working forests may also lead to more imports of wood products, more exports of family-wage jobs to countries with weak labor protections, and increased transportation-related emissions. IPCC’s 6th Assessment found that reduced harvest would have the unintended consequence of causing increased harvesting pressure and environmental degradation elsewhere. At the COP28 Conference in Dubai this past December, a coalition of 17 countries including the United States announced support to substantially increase the use of timber in construction as a ‘vital decarbonization strategy.’