Jack Armstrong, a DNR forester, cores a tree located near the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jack Armstrong, a DNR forester, cores a tree located near the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

After Oso slide, with old growth in peril, timber sales go under microscope

How much is too much to harvest? Advocates assert legacy forests should have “already been protected.” State officials are trying to strike a balance.

ARLINGTON — About 13 miles from town, nature stood still as a forester for the state Department of Natural Resources measured the age of a Douglas fir near a timber sale site known as Stilly Revisited.

Raindrops clung to suspended branches of pine needles. A misty morning fog hung in the space above forest-floor ferns. Other DNR staff members quietly observed, too, while Jack Armstrong spun a screw-like object, called an increment borer, into the center of the tree.

At Stilly Revisited, forest activists are concerned about protecting old growth trees and — in a valley still healing from the deadly Oso mudslide in 2014 — preventing future slides. They also question how Stilly Revisited and three other pending timber sales in Snohomish County meet a DNR goal to conserve 10% to 15% of old growth and structurally complex forests in the department’s Northwest Washington region.

Bailey Vos, a pre-sales forester, stands on a fallen tree in the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni/ The Herald)

Bailey Vos, a pre-sales forester, stands on a fallen tree in the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni/ The Herald)

Mature and old growth forests are often “structurally complex”: varied vegetation on a landscape that allows the area to capture more carbon. These trees signify biological diversity, soil productivity and wildlife habitat. Since the 18th century, logging and other developments have largely contributed to the loss of about 72% of original old growth conifer forests in the Pacific Northwest.

The Bologna, Farm View and Ridge Ender timberland — valued at almost $3 million combined — are set for auction on June 12. On June 4, the Board of Natural Resources will vote on whether to approve Stilly Revisited for auction. Some revenue from the Stilly Revisited sale is expected to go to the Arlington School District, the Snohomish County Conservations Futures program and Washington State University.

“There are so few legacy forests left in the world,” said Stephen Kropp, director of the Legacy Forest Defense Coalition. “If they were to follow their own policies and procedures, all of these legacy forests would have already been protected.”

But the DNR’s crew of geologists, foresters and timber sale managers are tasked with addressing individual harvests. The state’s Board of Natural Resources is responsible for broader policies.

DNR is “conservative” about harvesting trees on public lands, said DNR Cascade District Manager Mark Arneson.

“We’re managing these for future generations,” he said. “It’s not for right now.”

Jack Armstrong counts tree rings from the core sample of a tree near the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jack Armstrong counts tree rings from the core sample of a tree near the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

After winding the tool all the way through the Doug fir, Armstrong removed the core and counted each ring. The frail tree sample was about the width of a pencil and smelled vaguely of a holiday-scented candle. It showed the tree was roughly 142 years old. Spacing between the rings also suggested it thrived for decades, before it had to compete for resources with neighboring giants.

The Douglas fir isn’t an old growth tree, according to DNR, because it doesn’t predate 1850. Still, DNR staff excluded it from the timber harvest because it is located in a riparian zone buffer.

Washington DNR staff excluded about 25 acres of old growth trees, some over 300 years old, from the Stilly Revisited sale units. They also removed all areas with potentially unstable slopes from the harvest boundaries, Arneson wrote in response to comments submitted on the sale.

“None of our work is done in a vacuum,” Arneson said. “We’re a public agency. We’re working on public lands for the public benefit.”

Mark Arneson, Department of Natural Resources cascade district manager, walks through a portion of the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Mark Arneson, Department of Natural Resources cascade district manager, walks through a portion of the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘We take it seriously’

When state foresters start planning timber sale sites, state geologists conduct a “remote review” to identify geologic hazards sensitive to timber harvest.

They look at data collected via lidar, an aerial mapping technology that stands for “light detection and ranging.”

Typically, a contracted pilot in an airplane, helicopter or drone flies over a hillside, using a sensor to transmit light pulses to the landscape below and back.

After mapping historic landslides near a potential timber sale, state geologists then assess for slope stability in person.

Last fall, state lands geologist Greg Morrow completed a field assessment for Stilly Revisited. He identified four dormant landslides, as well as an active one.

“Most old deep-seated landslides are pretty insensitive to timber harvest,” Morrow said. He found this to be true at the site. “We have nice vertical huge trees, we’re not seeing ground cracks or exposed soil evidence that the landslides have continued to move, since whenever they first happened.”

Still, he noted in his report that contractors will avoid logging on two of the dormant landslides, and the one active site, because they fall outside the DNR’s management area or are separated by multiple ridgeline drainage divides.

For the other two dormant landslides, he suggested contractors harvest on areas of the slide that are less vulnerable to timber harvest.

“It’s really the toes of deep-seated landslides that can be the most sensitive,” Morrow said. “Generally the toe is kind of the steepest part of the older, disturbed material — the weakest of all the landslide material.”

He estimated the toes of the landslides were separated from the timber harvest units by at least a mile.

Greg Morrow, a state lands geologist, talks about different identifiers of landslide activity on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Greg Morrow, a state lands geologist, talks about different identifiers of landslide activity on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

All of the geologist’s work is reviewed by other people, including forest practices geologists and representatives from the DNR’s tribal partners, said Jenn Parker, the DNR Earth Sciences program leader.

“We take as much time as we need,” she said. “If we’re not feeling comfortable, we’re going to continue collecting data until we feel comfortable with where we’re at.”

Since the 2014 Oso landslide, Parker said the DNR’s Forest Practices Board has updated its manual and standards for timber harvesting.

Slightly over a decade ago, a 650-foot-tall hill collapsed along Highway 530, engulfing the Steelhead Haven neighborhood in 19 million tons of sand, clay and timber. Several businesses had harvested timber from the area, likely starting in 1933 and continuing into the early 2000s.

Just days after the slide, some locals had insinuated nearby logging could have played a role in causing the slide. In 2016, victims’ families reached a $10 million settlement with Grandy Lake Forest Associates timber company.

Geologists who studied the tragedy near Oso noted that massive landslides flooded the valley long before commercial logging started in the region.

Still, the landslide that killed 43 people “shook our geological community,” Parker said.

“We take it seriously to stay current with all the latest, best available science to us in our evaluations,” she said. “There is ongoing research, and we will continue to adapt as new science becomes available.”

Fog rolls in to a portion of the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Fog rolls in to a portion of the Stilly Revisited timber sale on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Trying to find a balance’

Outside of Sultan, DNR staff have prepared portions of the Ridge Ender timber sale site for harvest, too.

Advocates for mature forests in Western Washington led a small group to some of the site’s units last week. The journey requires miles of bushwacking and balancing on mossy logs. No step is certain.

After about 2 miles of hiking, Jim Oliver, the South Sound region coordinator for the Center for Responsible Forestry, identified a Douglas fir he estimated at 300 years old.

The tree, and some of its Western redcedar neighbors, were marked with a line of blue spray paint to ensure contractors don’t log the area.

But Oliver and other advocates worry logging around the old tree could still jeopardize its future and make it more vulnerable to extreme weather.

Varied conditions across a landscape are important to different species, said Padraic Callahan, DNR’s assistant division manager for product sales.

Spotted owls depend on openings in the forest to locate prey, he said.

At the Stilly Revisited site, the area around the swath of old growth trees has been logged before, DNR staff said. And there is evidence a fire traveled through the area, maybe 100 years ago, too.

Jim Oliver holds an old growth tree near the Ridge Ender timber sale in Sultan, Washington on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Jim Oliver holds an old growth tree near the Ridge Ender timber sale in Sultan, Washington on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A DNR “old growth designee” identifies physical tree characteristics that can allude to its age.

Flakey orange bark on a Douglas fir, for instance, shows the tree is more mature, Callahan said.

Old growth trees also often have “epicormic branches,” or hefty sprouts, toward the top, when they stopped growing vertically.

“Size,” Callahan said, “doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about age.”

Some trees struggle for resources when lots of other trees are nearby, restricting their growth.

If Stilly Revisited is logged, DNR staff will replant the area in one to two years, likely with a mix of Douglas fir and Western redcedar, Arneson said.

DNR sends groups out to survey after one year, three years and seven years, to assess how the new trees are faring.

This week, Snohomish County Council member Megan Dunn was writing a letter to DNR about future timber sales in the county. She wants the state agency to provide a complete count of mature and old growth forests and explain how staff plans to conserve old growth in the state’s Northwest region.

The letter is based on conversations the County Council has had, Dunn said, and is “focused on what our values are as a county.”

There is a “real need to preserve our mature and structurally complex forests,” she said. “We’re all trying to find a balance.”

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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