Commentary: Proposal to shut down public working forests threatens critical Washington state services and jobs


Washington faces significant social and economic risks if anti-forestry groups succeed in persuading the Board of Natural Resources and candidates for commissioner of public lands to close an additional 77,000 acres of public working forests, including those in Lewis County.

These working forests, known as Department of Natural Resources (DNR) state trust lands, are not just sources of timber; they provide clean water, wildlife habitat, climate change mitigation and recreational opportunities. The proposed closure would have far-reaching and severe consequences, impacting public schools, local public safety agencies, public health services, universities and other essential community services.

Under the state constitution and state law, DNR state trust lands must be managed to generate timber harvest revenues for defined beneficiaries, including public schools, local public safety agencies and various community services. This proposal to shut down working forests not only threatens these critical services, but also jobs throughout Washington, leading to negative impacts for the state's infrastructure and economy.

Nearly 800,000 acres of state trust lands in Western Washington are already off-limits to timber harvesting under a science-based, landscape-scale Habitat Conservation Plan developed by state and federal scientists. This figure doesn’t include the millions of acres of federally-owned forests that are left unmanaged and are increasingly vulnerable to wildfires.

According to state revenue and tax estimates, the potential closure of these public working forests would jeopardize public services by eliminating $1.35 billion in timber revenue over 15 years for the beneficiaries of state trust lands. Additionally, state, county and local governments would lose $400 million in tax revenues generated by forest sector businesses. This loss would undermine critical public infrastructure, including K-12 school construction, university funding, fire departments, libraries and hospitals.

The job market would suffer tremendously, with an estimated 9,200 jobs lost due to a reduction of 3.85 billion board feet of timber. This is significant for a state whose forest industry generates $36 billion annually in economic output.

Furthermore, the closure would threaten the infrastructure needed to reduce wildfire risk. Mills and forest contractors, essential for treating overstocked, fire-prone forests, would face closure without the timber from DNR lands. The Department of Natural Resources itself would lose $500 million in revenue, putting funding for agency staffing and forest health activities at risk. Additionally, the housing market would feel the impact as the lost timber volume is equivalent to enough lumber to frame over 450,000 homes, exacerbating the regional housing crisis.

Thurston County serves as a stark example of the impacts of closing state trust lands from timber management. According to DNR estimates, junior taxing districts have already lost at least $11.36 million due to political decisions to set aside these public working forests. School districts like Griffin, Olympia, Rochester and Tumwater have lost over $7 million in funding. Fire departments and county services have lost $2.4 million in revenue. Other services, such as the Timberland Regional Library and the Port of Olympia, have also seen significant revenue decreases.

While anti-forestry groups argue that these set asides will benefit the climate, a recent case study of a DNR timber harvest indicates otherwise. Proposals to set aside more DNR state trust lands will likely increase CO2 emissions as the supply of Washington-made wood products diminishes and carbon sequestration slows in these older forests. Reducing harvests from DNR working forests forces us to either use wood substitutes, which often have higher environmental costs, or import wood from elsewhere, increasing carbon emissions. Both scenarios are detrimental to our climate and environment.

Closing 77,000 acres of public working forests in Washington would lead to severe social, economic and environmental consequences we can’t afford. It threatens jobs, public services, and our ability to manage forest health effectively. The Board of Natural Resources and candidates for commissioner of public lands must consider these far-reaching impacts and stand with working people and working forests by rejecting this harmful proposal.

Nick Smith is public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade association representing Washington’s forest sector and timber communities.