Snow dusts the treeline near Heather Lake Trailhead in the area of a disputed logging project in April, 2023, outside Verlot. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Snow dusts the treeline near Heather Lake Trailhead in the area of a disputed logging project in April, 2023, outside Verlot. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Move ahead with state forests’ carbon credit sales

A judge clears a state program to set aside forestland and sell carbon credits for climate efforts.

By The Herald Editorial Board

A ruling this month by a Thurston County Superior Court judge should now allow the state Department of Natural Resources to continue rolling out its plan to add an additional money-making opportunity for state-managed forestlands: carbon credits.

Two years ago state Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz, who heads the DNR, announced a plan to begin the process of setting aside 10,000 acres of the state’s 2.4 million state forest trust lands, removing those acres from timber production and preserving them as a tool in the fight to slow the climate crisis; eating up and storing carbon dioxide and then selling that benefit as a carbon credit to companies and others looking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Selling carbon offsets has a range of backers, including environmental groups, industries and economic advisers who see it as a way of making up for the impacts of greenhouse gases by incentivizing efforts to reduce emissions and reach “net zero” carbon emissions, while using the proceeds from their sales to fund other climate work. The same concept is the basis for the state’s cap-and-invest program — the Climate Commitment Act — adopted in 2021 and which began its carbon auctions last year, raising about $1.5 billion that the state has put toward climate solutions.

The DNR got a start on the plan in 2022, identifying 3,750 acres of state forestlands, including 2,500 of forest previously identified for timber harvest in Whatcom, Thurston, Grays Harbor and King counties. The balance, 1,250 acres, had already been protected from logging by existing DNR conservation and other policies.

But the proposal prompted a lawsuit by the American Forest Resource Council and Skagit and Lewis counties, objecting to the program’s removal of lands as working forests, potentially limiting timber sales, cutting into timber county jobs and reducing revenue that goes toward counties and a state school construction fund.

The DNR countered that the revenue from carbon credits would be approximate to that of timber revenue, but paused the program during the lawsuit. Barring an appeal, it now appears ready to resume.

“Our public forests have multiple benefits and must be stewarded to achieve multiple goals and live up to our values,” Franz said in a statement, reported by the Washington State Standard on Tuesday.

The Thurston County judge in his ruling echoed an earlier unanimous state Supreme Court decision that held that the DNR can manage state lands as it sees fit and wasn’t obligated to reserve them for logging alone. The judge also found that the state had complied with requirements for an environmental review of the carbon-sequestration and carbon credit-sales program.

Throughout, a side debate — some of the back-and-forth appearing in The Herald’s opinion pages for the past two years — pitched competing theories regarding which was most effective in sequestering carbon and aiding the climate: working forests, replanted after harvest; or old-growth and mature forests left to a natural cycle of growth and regeneration.

Team Working Forest says that harvest of timber and use of that wood for furniture, lumber and the like, locks that carbon in long-term, and then allows for a replanted and quickly growing young forest, packing more trees together and excelling at its carbon-gobbling task.

Team Old-Growth Forest, instead, maintains that mature and old-growth forests are “carbon storage powerhouses,” in particular those of the Pacific Northwest that capture and store more carbon than nearly any other ecosystem on earth. At the same time, logging, notes Team Old-Growth, emits immense amounts of carbon during road building, logging, transportation and sawmill operations.

And both teams can cite scientific studies.

From Team Working Forest, a 2019 University of Washington study that examined the carbon mitigation from the wood products industry found that while the production of wood and paper products emit greenhouse gases, the harvesting and replanting of trees stores more carbon in wood products than what is emitted and has reduced the state’s carbon footprint by 12 percent.

While Team Old-Growth, can point to a 2014 letter by numerous scientists and ecologists published in Nature that found that a typical tree’s growth and carbon storage accelerates throughout its lifetime, which for trees in temperate rainforests, such as those in Washington state, can reach 800 years or older.

“This finding contradicts the usual assumption that tree growth eventually declines as trees get older and bigger,” said Nathan Stephenson, a U.S. Geological Survey forest ecologist who participated in the research. “It also means that big, old trees are better at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than has been commonly assumed.”

Beyond that debate, there are practical considerations that — added to the judicial ruling — argue for continuation of the DNR program; the first being that at least in its initial years, it’s limited to a reasonable 10,000 acres of state forestland. Of the 2.4 million acres of state forestland, 840,000 is managed for conservation; with another 130,000 acres of forestland protected as natural areas, still leaving significant acreage for sustainable working forest production.

As well, the DNR is using several criteria to identify acreage for the remaining 6,250 to be set aside. The program is putting a priority on areas with significant concentrations of biodiversity and landscape-scale ecosystems; the presence of rare, threatened or endangered species and their habitats; critical areas, such as those needed for watershed protection and erosion control; and areas critical to the needs and cultural identity of tribes and local communities. It’s likely that many of those factors would have made timber harvest inadvisable in some areas even without the carbon-offset program, as this editorial board noted two years ago.

Franz, who isn’t seeking reelection in order to run for Congress in the state’s 6th District, launched a program that has diversified the work portfolio of the state’s forestlands, an effort that should be continued by her successor, reviewed for its effectiveness and expanded — or not — as that review dictates.

The state Legislature can add to the program’s effectiveness by clearing the DNR to act as its own carbon-selling agent. Currently, the agency must lease the land to a third party, which then offers the credits for sale. Legislation to accomplish that passed the House in 2023, but expired in the Senate.

But as long as the state is making money from its state lands, as Franz suggested two years ago — “We can sell timber, we can sell hops, we can sell wheat, we can sell shellfish and geoducks. We can even sell marijuana.” — it should also be selling carbon credits.

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