Conifers or condos? NW Environmental Forum develops strategies

Priorities the Washington Department of Natural Resources might consider when spending the $70 million it has available to bolster the amount of working forestland in the state were on the agenda last month during the Northwest Environmental Forum at the UW.

The Northwest Environmental Forum is a UW College of Forest Resources think tank involving forest companies, small landowners, environmental advocates, Native American tribes, government agencies and land conservation organizations. They met last month to develop strategies for the legislature, the Department of Natural Resources, other land owners and non-governmental organizations to retain and acquire working forests in the state.

“Working forests” include areas actively managed for both commodities, such as timber, and for what are called environmental services such as fresh water, wildlife habitat and soil conservation. Working forests in Washington include, for example, 2.1 million acres of Washington Department of Natural Resources forests and roughly 8 million acres of tribal and privately owned forests. The federal government owns 5.6 million acres of working forests in Washington, although harvesting from federal lands declined by 90 percent in the last decade.

One concern of the Northwest Environmental Forum participants is that working forests are being converted to other uses ranging from pasture land to housing developments, according to Brian Boyle, who works for the UW as leader of the forum.

Forum participant Roger Hoesterey with the Trust for Public Land, a conservation organization, said at last month’s meeting, “Twenty years ago this discussion would have been between clearcuts and old growth — now it’s conifers or condos.”

Concerning the $70 million for trust land purchases of land threatened by conversion, forum participants said some of the most important values to consider are:

  • If this looks as if it is a one-time appropriation from the legislature, the money should be spent according to normal Department of Natural Resources criteria that consider such things as soils and forest growth potential, whether the purchase will create logical blocks of forest ownership and keeping the risk of economic loss low — as well as to mitigate conversion threats.
  • Connectivity, wildlife and recreation corridors should be considered.
  • Such a strategy should focus on rural, forest-dependent communities, where current land use pressure is lower than in the Puget Sound or other urbanized areas.
  • If additional appropriations are possible, a different DNR strategy, with long-term funding, could allow DNR to buffer some high-growth areas.
    For other landowners — ranging from those with small wooded lots to tribal enterprises and large industrial forest landowners — forum participants suggested the state use incentives for landowners to protect critical environmental areas and that partnerships between landowners and environmental groups be developed.

“The forest products industry in this state is not just the industry as we have thought of it. Other companies manage forests for pensions and universities. Non-profits have come to see it’s profitable to own a forest,” Boyle says. “The real story of this forum is the number of players among conservation non-profits that have strategies for preserving working forests and can actually benefit the forest products industry, making it possible for landowners who hold onto their lands to be able to work them in the future. ”

In addition to conducting the Northwest Environmental Forum, the College of Forest Resources was granted $500,000 by the state Legislature to develop recommendations on prioritizing forest lands at risk for conversion, especially in the Cascade foothills, as well as exploring the potential for using forest biomass to generate energy. A separate $200,000 for UW and $800,000 for Washington State University will be used to explore markets for biomass.

For more information:
Boyle, (206) 616-8640,

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