The future of Washington’s small forestland

The future of Washington’s small forestland
Panelists at a May 3 annual meeting of the Washington Farm Forestry Association discussed ways to improve the economic climate for small forestland owners. Photo: freepik.com

A new study authorized by the state legislature will determine how much small forestland remains in Washington state, along with ways to encourage the industry. While an official figure doesn’t exist, the consensus among policymakers and industry members is that much of that land in recent decades has been converted into other uses. One theme dominating the May 3 annual meeting of the Washington Farm Forestry Association (WFFA) was how to stop – and even reverse – that trend.

“If we want to keep them forested and sustainablymanaged for generations to come, then we need to make sure their owners can make sound investments with sustainable financial returns,” U.S. Forest Service President Vicki Christiansen said at the summit. Christiansen is the former Washington state forester; she worked for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for almost 30 years.

WFFA estimates around 3.7-4 million acres of Washington’s 22 million acres of forestland is owned by small forestland owners, defined as those who harvest less than two million board feet of timber each year. However, that figure is far less than the 5.7 million acres reported in a 2007 database.

While improved state funding for programs intended to help them comply with the 1999 Forests and Fish Law would help, panelists representing state agencies, conservationists, tribes and the environmental community emphasized long-term cooperation moving forward.

“This process works best when we work to understand and consider the problems and the needs of all stakeholder groups,” Suquamish Tribal Fisheries Director Rob Purser, Jr. said. “Healthy forests are critical for the culture and the economic wellbeing of our tribal members just as they are to the success of your businesses. It is only with cooperation that we can meet these goals.”

The sentiment of the small forestry community was summarized by former WFFA executive director Ken Miller, who said that “as a group of wonderful and well deserving folks…we do feel disrespected and unappreciated. Why do we feel twinges of guilt when we harvest? Will foresters have a greater social license, where it really is cool to be a tree farmer in the eyes of others?”

Small forestland is more vulnerable to land conversion for several reasons. One is that the land is closer to public roads, which makes it more attractive to developers. A DNR report found that “the primary driver of conversion is the often-dramatic disparity between the economic value of forested land for timber production and the much higher value for development.”

That means “the odds are too stacked against the viability of small forestland owners,” Washington Law Center Director Peter Goldman said. “We know that we have to help.” The environmentalist group has been involved in numerous lawsuits, including a 2016 suit against the state Forest Practices Board after the 2014 Oso landslide. In 2017, the group sued to prevent a timber harvest near a Snohomish County hiking area.

At the May 3 summit Goldman offered an olive branch to the forestry community. Although “kids want to move and work for Microsoft,” he said there has to be an “incentive for folks to stay on the land. There are not enough folks like the good folks in this room to maintain the entire land base.”

However, he added that “we lose a lot of goodwill, a lot of collaboration, when we fight over regulations. Ultimately, we don’t think that a 50-foot narrower buffer is going to surmount the odds of (land) conversion.”

Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon also voiced her support at the summit. “We want no net decrease in working family forest farms.”

One victory for the forestry community during this legislative session was the passage of ESHB 1324, which extends a business and occupation (B&O) preferential tax rate for timber products. The bill also included mass timber as a qualifying product for that preferential rate.

Although most forestry-related jobs are in King County, the DNR report noted that between 1997-2003, 44 percent of forest practice permits in that county scheduled to be converted were in areas “no longer remaining in a forest land use. The low-elevation forests of western Washington are among the most productive in the world for softwood forests.”

Adding to the higher property value of these forestlands is the population growth Washington has experienced since the 1990s in those parts of the state. This session, the legislature approved a bill adding working forests to real estate disclosure agreements when buyers purchase land adjacent to them. Although working forests are already protected by a 2013 law, the revised disclosure reflects uncertainty about how new residents will respond to those lands.

DNR Senior Strategic Advisor Tom Bugert said it raises questions about “what does it mean to have an actively-managed forest” and how to achieve that even as the population continues to increase.

However, the DNR report also concluded that other “contributing factors are regulatory complexity and uncertainty.” For small forestland owners, a significant challenge is compliance with the Forests and Fish Law requiring fish barriers to be removed and establishing buffer zones around watersheds in which timber harvests are prohibited. The law is intended to protect fish passage and habitat for salmon, but at the time it also acknowledged a disproportionate burden would be placed on small foresters. To address that, DNR programs created by the 1999 law were to provide financial and technical assistance, however they have consistently been unfunded by the legislature.

During the summit, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelley Susewind said these efforts aren’t given priority because the urban part of the state is unaware of their importance.

“The urbanite in Seattle…needs to recognize they have a better life because those of us (here),” he said.When we have that, when we have that groundswell…then maybe we can get the recognition. We got to get the seven million people in the state to understand we’re all connected.”

Christiansen said: “Folks in the cities really do benefit from forestlands, and we’re not going to stop until they all realize how much they benefit.”

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