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A new brand of trust land?

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Nathan Rice | Mar 31, 2011 09:45 AM

Over the last 20 years, timberlands around the West have been falling fast to development. In Washington State, one sixth of commercial forests have been converted to other uses in that time, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Some 1.2 million acres of forest are converted to development and other uses each year nationwide, while the amount of land covered by urban and suburban areas has increased 300 percent since 1955. (Check out this animation of the spread of urban development nationwide.)

Urban sprawlIn response, the WDNR is proposing a new class of state trust land that would protect working forests around fast-sprawling urban areas. State trust lands have a constitutional mandate to make money for public services, primarily schools, which they’ve typically met with logging revenue. The WDNR's proposed Community Forest Trust would allow the agency to re-classify timberlands at risk of development as community forests, prioritizing open space and recreation over revenue. Under the new model, local cities could split the cost of the land with the state, compensating the school trust for lost timber revenue. Through selective logging, those funds could be recovered, while state and local governments work together to write a management plan.

State trust land managers around the West have long struggled to strike a balance between making money for schools and other public services while also considering open space and conservation. That charge is only more difficult as urban areas expand into working forests whose logging activity soon becomes undesirable to new neighbors. Friction against clearcut logging combined with development pressures often result in forests turning into suburbs. Now, in a region known for contentious timber battles, mounting urban sprawl has united environmentalists with foresters to keep forests intact.

The Community Forest Trust bill passed the Washington State House this month, but could face more resistance in the Senate.

Testimony from the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing in February shed light on the nuances of managing public lands amidst shifting Western economies. An exchange between Representative Ed Orcutt (R), a forester, and Craig Partridge, DNR director of policy, captures the essence of this transition.

Rep. Orcutt:

If the community is reluctant to see timber harvest going on, why don't we express to (them) that they have two choices: They can either allow us to manage the timber or they can have the next option, which is conversion. Either we can do good forest management under DNR… or we can just clearcut it, pave it and be done with it. Why aren't we out there talking to the community about that and giving them the real hard facts rather than doing something like this?

Craig Partridge, WDNR policy director:

The idea of this legislation is that, in situations where it appears that there are two choices (logging or development), maybe there are more than two choices. Maybe there's a third choice that is a middle pathway, in which the lands would still be working... and we could avoid that choice between all timber harvest or all pavement.

Mitch Friedman, executive director of the environmental group Conservation Northwest and an early tree-sitter during the Northwest timber wars, testified for the bill, pointing out that the issue is more about preserving working forests themselves than taking timberlands out of production.

We need as a society to find a new form of timber operation that is compatible and supported by our urbanizing communities. Just like we are embracing local farming more and more these days, we need our urban communities to embrace working forests. That probably won't be the standard, industrial, clearcut model. That's a lot to swallow. But maybe a tool like the Community Forest Trust helps us find a new path.

Without a tool like this, the choice a community faces is either conversion to development, or if they can muster it, park status. We don't want to turn all of our timberlands into malls or parks. We need to find another option, which is a working forest.

I want to be absolutely clear here. Even as a conservationist who has been associated with a lot of the big tree and wilderness fights over the last 25 years in this state, I very much want working forests… But we need to find a form of timber management that the community can embrace and support, and this (new trust) moves us in that direction.

Follow the Community Forest Trust bill's progress here.

Nathan Rice is a HCN intern.

Image courtesy Google Maps.

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