Columbia Land Trust is spearheading an innovative pilot program to bolster southern Washington’s rural forest economy and further conservation of old forests.
County lines, state land borders, and other geopolitical boundaries rarely make for the riveting stories. Yet the lines we draw and redraw across the land can determine where we live, how we thrive, and how we care for wildlife and natural resources. It’s in these complexities that new opportunities for conservation sometimes arise.
Columbia Land Trust’s 25-year conservation agenda outlines clear objectives for fundamentally changing the pace and scale of conservation in the Northwest. When it comes to conserving forestlands, and the enormous ecological and economic value they represent, the Land Trust is living into that vision. We are working cooperatively with a geographically and culturally diverse group of stakeholders to address a problem that has long vexed rural timber counties in southern Washington.
Wahkiakum, Pacific, and Skamania counties rely on forestry revenue from trust lands (state lands managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources) to sustain basic public services and to provide benefits back to their communities as well as support log mills and provide jobs.
Many forest lands that once generated funding for the counties are now encumbered by restrictions on harvests due to Endangered Species Act (ESA) obligations and are no longer able to produce revenue. As a result, these three counties have experienced a disproportionate economic impact from obligations under ESA. Today, these counties rely on legislative capital funding from the state to pay for essential community services that were once paid for with timber revenue. County commissioners would strongly prefer timber-based revenues from the forestland in their counties instead of the biennial burden of requesting alternative funds.
The Land Trust approached this stalemate with a deep appreciation for these rural timber-reliant counties. We wanted a solution that would both ensure forestry revenues while protecting the old forests, especially for ESA-listed spotted owl and marbled murrelet.
Our desire for a win-win solution led to a trade proposal: swap encumbered lands for other un-encumbered state lands within the counties, essentially ensuring the conservation of older forests while releasing other forestland better-suited for harvest.
Led by Forest Conservation Director Cherie Kearny, the Land Trust helped spearhead a concept that has since grown into a Washington State steering committee. The committee includes a diverse representation of county commissioners from three forest-reliant counties, state legislators, and leaders from the Department of Natural Resources, the Office of the State Superintendent, and the American Forest Resource Council.
“This is a beautiful illustration of varied interests working toward a cooperative, solution to a gnarly problem,” said Kearney. “These timber-reliant counties have had to ask for financial support every biennium and no one wants that. This group shared a vision that Washington’s state-managed forests will benefit communities, economies, and wildlife. With that, we have a creative solution for the legislature.”
The team has a 2020 strategy that includes a legislative field tour and a budget request for $28 million as a pilot phase. This pilot, if successfully funded in 2021 legislative capital budget, lays the groundwork for a forever-solution. The committee has been active in Olympia this session explaining the problem, the proposed long-term solution and seeking support for the 2021 request for funding to launch the pilot in 2021.