Comment: ‘Legacy forest’ term hides an unproductive intent

Meant to lock up state forest lands, it discourages responsible and valuable timber management.

By Kris McCall / For The Herald

Legacy is a powerful concept and one foresters think a lot about. We plan, plant and care for forests that we often won’t live to see harvested. We work to be good stewards to ensure the forests in our care will continue to provide the same social, economic and environmental values for future generations.

That said, the term mature “legacy forest” has received some media attention lately, and it has left many professional foresters, like myself, perplexed. While there is interest in better defining “old growth” based on the habitat benefits it can provide, “legacy forest” is not a term based in science.

The U.S. Congress created the Forest Legacy Program in 1990 to help landowners, state and local governments and land trusts identify and protect environmentally important forest lands that are at risk of being converted to non-forest uses. Lately, however, the phrase has been used to describe (and presumably preserve) forested areas that have been harvested prior to World War II and left to regenerate naturally. The phrase appears to have arisen as part of a campaign to further restrict harvests on Washington state trust lands, which by law, are managed by the Department of Natural Resources to provide funding for public schools and community services under the some of the strongest environmental protections in the world.

Those who advocate for preserving “legacy forests” on state trust lands argue they should be excluded from sustainable timber harvest because of how the trees got their start, regardless of their condition today. There is, however, no scientific evidence that suggests forests left to regenerate naturally provide more habitat benefits than forests that were replanted.

I’ve also seen some refer to “legacy forests” as “rare.” While private forestland owners routinely replant after harvest, natural regeneration forests are still being created on public lands today on a massive scale. The vast majority of the 4 million acres the U.S. Forest Service has identified as in need of reforestation will be left to regenerate naturally. Failing to reforest is not a legacy we should leave future generations.

Instead of amplifying arbitrary forest designations and setting aside more productive timberland, we should work to safeguard the ability to sustainably manage, harvest and replant the few remaining publicly owned working forests left in the state. Currently, 68 percent of forestland in our National Forest system is more than 70 years old, and almost all of that is off-limits to harvest. And yet, there is growing awareness that a hands-off approach is not the best way to maximize our forests’ climate benefits. Research finds that unmanaged forests in Washington have lower rates of carbon sequestration, and three times the rate of tree mortality, making them more susceptible to severe wildfires that emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide and polluted air.

Roughly 50 percent of DNR-managed trust lands are already off-limits to active management. The harvests that do take place are carefully designed to protect habitat and sensitive slopes, and they create local jobs, building materials and other renewable products, and funding rural schools and other public services. That is the legacy we should be protecting.

Kris McCall is a division forester for Hampton Lumber & Family Forests, a fourth-generation, family-owned company that operates three sawmills in Western Washington in the communities of Darrington, Morton and Randle. McCall lives in Skagit County.

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