Washington DNR’s Set Aside of State Trust Lands under Climate Commitment Act Driven by Politics, Not Climate Science

Today the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) questioned the politics and science behind the use of funding from Washington’s controversial Climate Commitment Act (CCA) to set aside 2,000 acres of Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) trust lands that will no longer serve as working forests to provide climate benefits, nor to provide funding for counties, public schools and community services.

Through a budget proviso during the 2023 session, the Washington Legislature directed the DNR to select state lands as “carbon sequestration forests” and to purchase private lands in their place, subject to concurrence by counties and approval of the Board of Natural Resources.

AFRC says the $70 million in CCA funds being used to close publicly-managed working forests and purchase private working forests as replacement lands should have been spent on real climate solutions including reforestation, forest health and wildfire prevention, just as a DNR official himself acknowledged at a December 5, 2023 legislative hearing.  Other experts have also pointed out that science shows that setting aside more DNR working forests will actually increase CO2 emissions.

“Let’s be clear, this is not a climate solution.  Using public monies to convert more of Washington’s working lands and forests into no touch ‘set asides’ is more about politics and appeasing anti-forestry groups than it is about science, strategic climate investments, or common sense,” said Travis Joseph, AFRC President.

“As Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz herself said, ‘a dangerous war’ is being waged on our forestlands between those who manage our forests for all its benefits including biodiversity, fish and wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and those who believe the way to save our planet in the face of climate change is to lock up forests and not touch them,” he said. “She is also correct that those who want to stop timber harvests are wrong on the climate science and are wrong on the impacts to our state and our environment. It’s unfortunate and puzzling that the Climate Commitment Act is funding decisions that cost our communities and defy real solutions to the climate crisis.”

As an example of the disconnect, the Power Plant timber sale in Clallam County was included within the 2,000 acre proposed set aside. Local anti-forestry activists and some local elected officials, including City of Port Angeles Council members, have made baseless claims that the project would 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 would not impact the Elwha watershed nor local water supplies.

DNR’s professional lands managers and scientists filed declarations defending Power Plant against legal challenges and responded to a September 4 letter sent by other elected officials “to dispel some of the inaccuracies we have heard about the sale.”  As one of the beneficiaries of the timber sale, Clallam County supported the sale and now stands to lose its share of the over $400,000 that would have helped sustain public services this year.

“Any private working forests purchased by DNR with the CCA funds are unlikely to generate revenues for beneficiaries or economic activity for years or even decades into the future, so counties should carefully consider whether they approve of the set asides as required by the legislative budget proviso.” Joseph said.  “There are also questions about the criteria that went into selecting some of these areas and we strongly encourage the Board of Natural resources to review the proposed set asides and ask DNR staff appropriate questions about how and why the parcels were picked.  The public should be able to trust, verify, and believe in the process.”

Science is increasingly pointing to forestry and wood products as climate solutions. At COP28 in Dubai this month, 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’:

“Recognizing that wood from sustainably managed forests provides climate solutions within the construction sector, we commit to, by 2030, advancing policies and approaches that support low carbon construction and increase the use of wood from sustainably managed forests in the built environment. Such policies and approaches will result in reduced GHG emissions, and an increase in stored carbon,” Read More.

Scientists at the local and international level, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recognize the climate benefits of forest management, timber harvest and 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, 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.

“In a rapidly changing climate, emerging science would suggest that converting state trust lands to unmanaged forests is the wrong solution for sustaining all the values and benefits they provide,” Joseph said. “For the sake of good government and transparency, the DNR should be required to explain how and why they made these specific selections.”