The Gristle

Working Forests

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

WORKING FORESTS: Every political scrap produces winners and losers; and it is a measure of the quality of winners that they leave aside the mandates, the agendas, the vendettas and attempt to file down the cruelest burrs on that knife edge—for not every loser is wrong, nor are their concerns without merit.

In the debate over the Reconveyance of nearly 9,000 acres of steep forestland around Lake Whatcom, the biggest loser was clearly the timber industry, as thousands of acres of working commercial forests were transferred to county management as a park. The loss was largely symbolic, as those acres could not cure what ails the timber industry and, even logged to the last standing fir, might have produced only a few hundred hours of employment. Indeed, the pace at which modern equipment and practices can level a forest versus the years required to regrow that forest is one of the more difficult challenges for sustainable forestry. But symbolic or not, the loss was keenly, angrily felt and Whatcom County Council—and in particular Sam Crawford, in exchange for his vote of support for the land transfer—pledged to study the history and develop policy to stop the loss of working forests.

Council in 2013 created a Forestry Advisory Committee to review and recommend policy on issues that affect the forestry industry. The 11-member committee delivered a presentation to council last month that advocated a “no net loss” approach to working forests.

As detailed by foresters on the committee, nearly 64 percent of the county’s inventory of working timber lands has been reduced over the past 20 years. Of roughly 430,000 acres of potentially harvestable timber land, approximately half is locked up in national forests under federal policy established during the Clinton administration to help stall the loss of threatened species. Of the remaining forests within county control, an enormous number of acres have been permanently lost through conversion to other uses—land gets logged, and the property gets flipped and rezoned, often for residences. Only about 155,000 acres remain in the county inventory for harvestable timber, the committee reported.

“Even within the working forest, there is now some land that cannot be harvested due to the required stream buffers, and the reality that the remaining ground is simply too steep for forestry activity,” the committee cautioned in a memo. “As a result of this shrinking land base, most of the available land in private ownership has been harvested and is in a period of regrowth, further reducing the available commercial timber within the county.”

Gerry Millman, chair of the committee, told council members that lands taken out of productive use for conservation or environmental reasons dwarf the acres lost to residential development.

The committee emphasized the difference between “forest land” and “working forests.” Forest lands are stands of trees that are not actively being logged, while working forests are devoted to long-term commercial timber production. There are, they noted, many more acres of forest land than there are working forests and they urged policymakers to address a growing imbalance, as required under the state’s growth management laws that provide for the productive use of designated resource lands.

“The forestry industry relies on a working forest—that is,” they clarified, “a forest which is actively managed to provide a balance of social, ecologic, and economic products and values. A stand of trees does not make a working forest; it is the use of those trees that creates the working forest that is essential to the forestry industry.”

The committee sketched nine possible measures that could help reduce the continued loss of commercial working forests, including stern warnings against continued conversions and rezones. They also suggested the use of a special tax incentive program provided by the state Legislature last session. Planners briefed council this week on the new law, which took effect in June, and its potential to help merge different classifications of timber lands into a unified forest management program for ease of administration.

The county currently manages timber lands under two programs—a standard for designated forest lands in parcels of 20 or more acres, used primarily for growing and harvesting timber; and a newer, more flexible classification for open space timber lands in parcels as small as five acres. Open space timber land is valued in the same manner as designated forest lands. Changes provided by the new state law reduces the requirement for both programs to five acres regardless of whether council decides to merge the two programs.

“The new law allows counties the option into one program that would be administered solely by the Assessor’s office,” Erin Osborn explained to council. Osborn manages the open space timber program for county Planning and Development Services, a role that would vanish in the proposed merger and consolidation of functions.

The merger holds potential to reduce both the cost and complexity for land owners who would like to dedicate their land to commercial forestry practices, hence the interest of the Forestry Advisory Committee as a potential tool to help the loss of forest lands. In July, the committee urged the council to require timber management plans as part of the application process for the open space timber program.

Encapsulated in the Reconveyance was a promise by county policymakers to do better with the management of resource lands. Their action was a giant step in the protection of a water resource for half the county’s population. Now they’re at work creating security for the jobs their bold action displaced.

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