Two weeks after the Thurston County Board of Commissioners wrote the Department of Natural Resources opposing a 16-acre cut near Summit Lake, another letter has made its way to the state.
On June 16, the county commissioners wrote the board and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz to ask that they consider saving 3,100 acres of forest in Thurston County. This move would protect what they and other advocacy groups believe to be the last of the county's Legacy Forests, which are scheduled to be cut by 2026.
Stephen Kropp with the Center for Responsible Forestry has defined Legacy Forests as mature forest stands that were logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s then left to grow back on their own. Currently, the DNR dates old-growth forests to 1850.
The commissioners said the DNR's forestry data says less than 7% of state forestlands managed by the DNR in the county are more than 80 years old. At the same time, the Center for Responsible Forestry has estimated that only about 4.5%, or 3,100 acres, is all that remains unprotected in the county.
"We believe this is an important, scientifically significant temporal distinction, because Legacy Forests more than 80 years old — that originated prior to the widespread use of clearcutting and plantation forestry practices — have structural complexity and biodiversity elements that younger forests do not," the commissioners wrote.
They wrote that these forests have major benefits for the community and environment, and they're likely to develop old-growth forest characteristics in no time.
The commissioners said protecting this land would not only help the county meet its climate mitigation and habitat conservation goals, but it would help the DNR meet its statewide goals, too. According to its Habitat Conservation Plan and Policy for Sustainable Forests, the DNR's managed lands have to contain 10-15% older forests by the end of the century.
According to the letter, about 374 acres in Thurston County have already been protected under the department's Carbon Project. The project works by analyzing how many tons of carbon are being sequestered, or stored, by a piece of land. That number is turned into credits that can be sold to a buyer to offset carbon emissions created by industry and other work.
The commissioners are asking that the remaining 3,100 acres of Legacy Forest in Thurston County be included in the project's second phase. They also asked that the DNR consult with them on prioritizing older forests with high ecological value on state-owned lands, with their focus being on areas set to be cut in Capitol State Forest by 2026.
In response to the letter, DNR communications manager Kenny Ocker said many of the Thurston County timber harvests have hardly been planned out, so there's still room for changes to be made and for trees to be saved.
"Their boundaries are the roughest of rough drafts, and our foresters and field experts have not yet ground-truthed buffers for streams, cultural resources, unstable slopes, or any of the other myriad things we protect as we design timber sales," he said.
Ocker said this is true of the three sales the county commissioners are most concerned about, named Juno, Hopscotch and Buttercup. The Buttercup sale design was completed during Commissioner Franz's moratorium on harvesting pre-1900 stands, and the other two are still in the early stages of planning.
Ocker said the age of a stand of trees isn't enough of a factor for the DNR to consider protecting it, but factors such as biodiversity and cultural use have to be examined as well. But he said the DNR will continue to examine forests across Western Washington to see if they meet their High Conservation Value framework, including proposed cuts in Thurston County.
"We appreciate Thurston County's enthusiasm for the carbon project and look forward to continuing our conversation with them as we move forward," he said.
Regarding the state's progress on meeting older forest targets laid out in the department's Habitat Conservation Plan, Ocker said they're on track to meet or exceed those goals. He said throughout the 1980s and 90s there was a 5% decrease in older forest acreage. But after the HCP was implemented in 1998, the state has seen a 13% increase in older forests on state land.
"The HCP has designated approximately half of the DNR-managed lands west of the Cascades to be managed solely for conservation, and we manage those lands on a landscape basis to ensure that we can provide the most meaningful conservation while still maintaining a viable supply of timber to support schools and critical local services throughout the state," Ocker said.
Thurston County has seen benefits from local timber cuts. Some examples are the Timberland Regional Library System and the McLane Black Lake Fire Department.
The county commissioners said the DNR's ability to meet old-growth forest goals in already protected areas is being litigated in Division 2 Court of Appeals. But Ocker said the courts have seen several similar cases come out of the county before, and all have been dismissed or had their initial hearings withdrawn.