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Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance

Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance.

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Washington Forest Law Center

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WFLC is a non-profit, public interest law firm dedicated to providing legal services to organizations that monitor and protect the Pacific Northwest's private and state-owned forest lands. Below are just a few of the actions we’ve recently taken to ensure the protection of our natural resources.

The Washington Forest Law Center’s Statement on the Department of Natural Resources’ Eastern Washington Forest Health Plan

By Peter Goldman, Director

October 25, 2017

Today, Washington's Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz announced a new 20-year strategic plan to reduce wildfires in Eastern Washington and improve forest health. The plan calls for a combination of thinning projects and prescribed burn treatments to restore these forests.

In principle, the Washington Forest Law Center supports the plan. DNR has worked hard to try to incorporate several of the environmental community’s concerns into the plan and there are many acres of forests in Eastern Washington that are overgrown and require active restoration for numerous reasons, including restoring ecological health and natural fire regimes, creating climate change resiliency, protecting wildland interface communities, and protecting the public purse (fires are expensive as we all know).

At the same time, the DNR plan has some serious issues of concern that need to be addressed at the early “programmatic” stage (the 20,000 foot view) and in the later forest plan-development stage. WFLC has identified the following issues of concern:

Concern # 1:  The plan does NOT take greenhouse gas emissions into account.

If 1.25 million acres are “treated” to reduce fire, those forests will become “net emitters” of carbon dioxide for almost the next 50 years whereas today, these forests today are net “sinks” of carbon. The science is very well established that the carbon footprint of logging (or even “thinning”) an area of this size can potentially outweigh the volume of greenhouse gases that would be emitted from the fires that might otherwise burn. There are two scientific papers on this subject confirming the carbon footprint of widespread thinning programs. In the first paper, authored by Oregon State University professors Mark Harmon and Beverly Law, the argument that forest thinning projects pencil-out (in a carbon sense) compared to the emissions from fire is refuted.

…removal of fuel to reduce the amount of carbon emitted by wildfires [15]. Ideally, such harvests would change forest structure such that the expected fire severity would result in survival of at least 80% of the dominant and codominant trees under 80% fire weather conditions likely to occur, otherwise known as the ‘80–80’ rule [16]. To achieve this goal, it has been suggested that management needs to reduce above-ground biomass (and thus carbon density) by as much as 40–50% [17,18]. This is a significant reduction in live biomass and, if implemented, would result in a net emission of CO2 to the atmosphere from forests for two reasons. First, the amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior [19]. Second, more area in a forested landscape has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment, leading to a greater loss of carbon via fuel treatment [20]. Other factors may also be involved when assessing relative effects of fire prevention and fire loss on forest carbon, such as indirect effects of fire prevention on soil productivity.

Tara Hudiberg, PhD, of the University of Idaho, authored a paper that takes a deeper dive into this topic. Dr. Hudiberg has been studying the carbon “footprint” of thinning v. fires for many years.

Unfortunately, DNR's Eastern Washington forest health plan does NOT take carbon accounting into account. To account for this important omission, all additional greenhouse gas emissions emitted from this massive east-side forest thinning program should be offset by commensurate measures on the wet west-side forest that sequester carbon. This includes growing older state forests to maintain their massive stores of forest carbon.

Concern #2:  The plan is too abstract today to draw conclusions about whether it makes sense in all locations.

The old saying goes:  the devil is in the details. DNR’s “plan” at this point consists of 40 pages of principles, goals, etc. But taking a 30 thousand foot plan like this and applying it to the ground is rife with uncertainty and risk. We need to see what the forest “prescriptions” look like before assessing whether they make sense in all locations. Slating 1.25 million acres for forest health restoration is not enough detail for anyone to say this is good forest policy in all places.

Concern #3:  Promoting environmental injustice.

Forest fires scare communities and cost money to fight. People want solutions.  But our environmental health also lies in enforcing and improving existing forest practices laws and regulations. To some extent, DNR's plan implies that this plan solves forest “health” issues, which could potentially put other forest priorities on the back burner. Moreover, the timber industry’s past practices are a substantial factor in the forest “health” crisis; this industry needs to help finance the remedy for the forest health crisis. There is no environmental justice in taxpayers having to finance the restoration of forests left in unhealthy states as a result of industrial forestry practices in Eastern Washington. And there is no environmental justice in emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases from restoration without, at the same time, requiring the DNR state lands or the timber industry to provide more carbon offsetting in their own forests today.