Washington State Has Quietly Made Logging a Part of Its Climate Plan (2023)

The forest behind Bruce Anderson’s home in the rolling foothills south of Puget Sound in Washington is densely packed with enormous Douglas fir trees, the most commercially harvested tree species in the United States. It is a natural forest, grown from seeds dispersed by a previous generation of conifers around the time of the Civil War. On a bright sunny morning in June 2022, Anderson bushwhacked his way through the thick underbrush, machete in hand. He stopped at a towering 200-foot-tall conifer, pulled a tape measure from his backpack, and stretched it around the thick trunk. Seven feet in diameter, 23 feet in circumference — an extraordinary size for a tree, but not for a Douglas fir.

To get an idea about how big a Douglas fir can grow, consider Queets Fir, a thousand-year-old hulk standing some 50 miles away in Olympic National Park. Measuring 50 feet around the trunk, it is more than twice the size of the tree at Anderson’s feet. Though there’s no guarantee the trees behind his house will ever match the stature of the Queets giant, they clearly have the potential to approach that size someday.

People have long marveled at the Pacific Northwest’s ancient Douglas fir forests for their innate beauty and towering canopies, but ecologists value them as indispensable wildlife habitat. Today, climate scientists see them as massive storehouses of carbon. Trees remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, one of the greenhouse gasses forcing the climate to spin out of control. CO2 is two parts oxygen and one part carbon. Trees keep the carbon and discard the oxygen back into the air, constantly refreshing the atmosphere. Half a tree’s mass is carbon. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it stores. After a tree dies, whether from natural death or logging, it will slowly return carbon back to the air.

Under the protection of the National Park Service, Queets Fir survived the great chainsaw massacre that took out almost every other massive tree in the Pacific Northwest during the last century. Today, the few remaining old-growth trees in the region are protected under various state and federal regulations. An “old-growth” tree is often defined as older than 175 years of age, but the big Douglas fir behind Anderson’s house won’t be considered old-growth for another two decades. The Washington Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that owns the tree along with thousands of acres of “mature” conifers and hardwoods throughout the state, is eager to cash trees like this one out while it still legally can.

To that effect, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law legislation that few Washingtonians seem to be aware of. Adopted two years ago, House Bill 2528 declares logging forests to be a “solution” to the climate crisis.

Since becoming governor in 2013, Inslee has doubled down on his bet favoring shifting carbon from forests to wood products, as witnessed by how Washington’s state-owned forests are managed under his leadership. The state’s logging operations have clearcut thousands of acres of mature forests annually over the last decade, with another 3,600 scheduled for logging in 2023.

Inslee’s refusal to protect mature forests threatens to undermine his well-earned reputation as a leading climate hawk. In 2019, he ran an unprecedented, climate-centered campaign for the presidency, and early in his political career, while a member of Congress, he sponsored several unsuccessful climate bills. In 2008, he even wrote a book (Apollo’s Fire) about climate change.

But while he does see the need to convert to a clean energy economy, Inslee is betting that it’s better to store carbon in wood products like lumber and plywood rather than in standing forests.

The process of putting carbon in products begins with logging — the very opposite of conserving trees. After logging a forest, the wood products industry typically replaces it with a new crop of young saplings that will in turn be logged in 30 to 40 years — a course of action shown to be harmful to the climate in study after study after study.

“It can take decades or centuries for seedlings/saplings to reach the equivalent carbon storage capacity of mature trees,” Wayne Walker, a climate change scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Institute near Boston, told us. “Given the urgency of climate change, we must therefore concentrate our efforts on protecting existing forests, better managing degraded/disturbed forests, and reforesting areas where forests have been lost.”

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Unsurprisingly, Inslee is now seen by many environmentalists as the “Joe Manchin of the West Coast,” a Democrat whose passion for restoring the climate goes only so far as it doesn’t interfere with one of the state’s primary industries.

One such critic is Dr. John Talberth, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Economy, a climate advocacy group based in Port Angeles, Washington. “Logging is a major threat to the climate, just like all combustion of fossil fuels. End of story,” Talberth told us. “The reality on the ground is the state Department of Natural Resources is the single largest logging corporation in the state, bigger than any individual private entity, and bigger than the federal government.”

Inslee’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The aforementioned House Bill 2528 absolves Washington’s entire wood products industry — landowners, mills, bioenergy, pulp and paper, and the related harvesting and transportation infrastructure — from any blame for contributing to the climate crisis, a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. The legislation accepted the industry’s claim that it is a “net sequesterer of carbon,” a designation obscuring its carbon emissions, which can be substantial when one accounts for the fossil fuels used in logging and milling machinery and vehicles transporting the timber, as well as the wood burned during forestry activities and decomposing plant matter left behind in logged areas.

It’s important to note that the bill credits timber companies for carbon sequestered in not just their own forests, but in publicly owned forests as well. As a result, any effort to tax the industry for its carbon emissions could be problematic.

HB 2528 attempted to magically bend climate science so that it aligns with the industry’s business practices, the rough equivalent of declaring that burning coal is clean. At its core, the bill was a preemptive strike against growing public sentiment in favor of protecting old forests as a climate-mitigation strategy.

In hearings on the bill in 2020, Washington’s legislative committees took testimony from lobbyists on the wood products industry payrolls, but not from independent climate scientists. In his testimony, one industry lobbyist, Jason Spadero, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, explained the root of the industry’s anxiety. “There are some that would have a carbon policy to avoid cutting of trees, extend rotations, grow trees forever and damage our manufacturing sector. We cannot allow that to happen.”

Both chambers of the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 2528 and its companion version in the Senate by a combined 139-3 vote, and Inslee signed it into law. Implausibly, Washington law now deems logging to be part of the state’s climate mitigation strategy.

“It slipped in under radar screens because it sounded so innocuous.”

Although polls show most Washingtonians view addressing climate breakdown as highly important, it’s likely few ever heard of House Bill 2528. Two years on, the state’s largest newspaper, The Seattle Times, is yet to write about it. Few voters realize their elected leaders were seemingly bamboozled on an issue they care deeply about.

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“It slipped in under radar screens because it sounded so innocuous,” Talberth said. “It slipped in and got passed really quickly without any serious debate.”

A serious debate could have drawn testimony from experts like Tufts University’s Dr. Wiilliam Moomaw, lead author of a groundbreaking 2019 paper linking forests and climate. Moomaw, a 2007 Nobel Laureate, was among 2,000 other scientists who helped write reports for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He was a co-author of five IPCC reports.

In his 2019 paper, Moomaw coined the term “proforestation” to describe a three-pronged climate strategy: protect old-growth forests; protect mature forests, or forests that will become old growth in the not-too-distant future; and delay the harvest of younger forests, including those recently planted. He argued that protecting both old growth and mature forests can safeguard carbon for centuries. Delaying harvests in young forests can double the amount of carbon they store within just a few decades.

The legislature could also have heard from noted climate scientist Dr. Beverly Law of Oregon State University, who told us: “For the next hundred years, I would be reserving these big contiguous giant carbon banks. It only makes sense to keep it there.” Or from Dr. Jerry Franklin, the retired forest ecologist at the University of Washington, who told us: “Allowing the forest to go longer between harvests is probably the most important single thing that we could do.”

Or it could have turned to Dr. Simon L. Lewis of University College London, who found that natural, unlogged forests are “forty times better” than industrial tree plantations at storing carbon.

Rep. Bill Ramos, a Democrat from the city of Issaquah and chief sponsor of the bill, told us the legislation simply “acknowledges the place that working forests have in the sequestration of carbon. We have a demand for wood products in this country that’s not going away. If you don’t harvest it here, you are going to rip it out from some third world country with a lot less environmental control than here.”

Washington State politicians are not the only elected officials to subscribe to the idea that logging is climate-friendly. Consider two bills passed recently in Congress, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Together, they allocated $4 billion for logging subsidies, Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and director of the John Muir Project, a California-based forest advocacy group affiliated with Earth Island Institute (the publisher of Earth Island Journal), pointed out.

The bills categorized the subsidies as “climate mitigation,” despite a letter signed by Moomaw, Law, Hanson, and some 200 other climate scientists and ecologists warning they would lead to more logging and “substantially increase emissions and worsen the climate crisis.”

Industry lobbyists often cite several studies (such as this and this) touting the alleged benefits of logging to the climate and wildlife diversity. House Bill 2528 specifically cites one such study — a controversial 2019 paper by Dr. Indroneil Ganguly, associate director of the Center for International Trade in Forest Products at the University of Washington. According to Ganguly’s LinkedIn bio, he is neither a climate change scientist nor an ecologist. He has a PhD in marketing and forest resources with an undergraduate degree in economics. Before coming to the university in 2013, Ganguly was a market research consultant for the National Association of Home Builders.

Ganguly’s paper claims wood products sequester carbon “for the duration of their functional life.” And the longer these products remain in use, it said, “the longer the carbon stays in its sequestered form.” But research by independent climate scientists expose these claims as gross exaggerations.

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A University of Idaho study found wood products retain only 19 percent of the forest’s total carbon long term. All wood products decompose, slowly returning their carbon to the air, regardless of whether they are in use or not. A far bigger cache of carbon is emitted by the branches, leaves, needles, and crowns that are sometimes left to decompose on the forest floor or, more commonly, are burned in biomass energy facilities.

An even larger amount of carbon is found in forest soils. Much of this carbon is emitted to the air as a result of logging, as Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia wrote this year in National Geographic. “Once the forest floor is pushed around by the clear-cutting machinery and exposed to the air, about 60 percent of the carbon is lost through displacement, erosion, and decomposition. My research also suggests that ultimately 90 percent is lost when the replacement tree plantations are logged again,” she wrote.

Ganguly’s study failed to mention the loss of carbon in forest soils at all.

In an email interview, we asked Ganguly to explain why he thinks logging is a better solution to the climate crisis than protecting forests. He offered a number of reasons, including statements like, “that we need to continue to manage our timberlands sustainably and intensively and store carbon in our economy so that our trees don’t die, rot and burn,” and “the risks associated with storing carbon in the forests are increasing rapidly. ” But when we asked him about soil carbon, he ceased responding to our inquiries.

Ganguly may be overly concerned about the climate impacts of wildfires. This year, a study based on over four years of field research concluded that carbon emissions from wildfires have often been greatly overestimated in scientific literature. The study found that even a large fire consumes less than 2 percent of the carbon stored in large trees. It also found forest fires can even benefit the climate. Decaying, dead, and burned trees return vital nutrients to the soil, enhancing the forest’s capacity to sequester carbon.

Ganguly should instead be more worried about fires in tree plantations rather than natural forests. Peer-reviewed research suggests fires tend to be more severe in tree plantations, while fires in natural forests are often less severe because they usually contain more moisture.

Ganguly also told us that forests stop sequestering additional carbon after they reach 120 years of age or so. He should tell that to Queets Fir, the thousand-year-old Douglas-fir in Olympic National Park that is still growing like crazy. It has added a full six feet to its massive girth in just the last six decades, according to official measurements.

Back in April, President Joe Biden jetted from the backrooms of the nation’s capital to Seattle to deliver an Earth Day address under a Douglas fir canopy in one of the city’s waterfront parks that is part the largest temperate rainforest on Earth. This rainforest covers 27 million hectares (67 million acres) across 2,500 miles from Northern California to the Gulf of Alaska. Trees here grow to immense proportions, thanks to the rich, loamy soils and heavy year-around rains. Acre for acre, it is one of the world’s most important terrestrial carbon sinks, an Australian study found in 2009, and yet has no official name. This forest also contains high biodiversity, stores enormous volumes of fresh water, and is highly resilient to climate change.

According to one study, heavy logging in the temperate rainforest since the beginning of the 20th century released more than 1 gigaton of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate disasters we see today.

At the end of his address, the president signed an executive order to inventory mature and old-growth forests on federal land — a move that conservation groups hope will soon turn into real protection for these forests and could be a step toward recapturing some of their lost carbon. It could also lay the groundwork for a climate-friendly model that other timberland owners could follow.

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The Biden administration has yet to follow through on its promise to actually protect mature and old trees from logging.

To be clear, Biden’s executive order applies only to forests owned by the federal government. It doesn’t include the 2.1 million acres of timberland owned by the state of Washington. Of those 2.1 million acres, fewer than 80,000 acres still host mature forests. And most of these “legacy forests,” as they are known, are being targeted by the state’s logging operations. The 57-acre forest behind Bruce Anderson’s home was scheduled to be logged in 2024, but the DNR spared the forest last summer upon discovering it contained some old-growth trees.

“They are biological and ecological sanctuaries, and an important part of our natural heritage,” said Stephen Kropp, executive director of Center for Responsible Forestry, a group that is trying to save these forests. In an effort to block the logging, Kropp’s group has filed a handful of lawsuits that are now pending before a state appellate court. A second conservation group, John Talberth’s Center for a Sustainable Economy, is suing the state for failing to analyze the climate impacts posed by its logging operations. A hearing on the case is scheduled for October 26.

“Both groups were heartened by Biden’s executive order on old forests. In the days following his Seattle speech, they joined dozens of other local, regional, and national organizations around the county to form a new coalition advocating for the protection of mature and old-growth forests and trees as climate mitigation. The coalition includes a number of high profile organizations like the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Protecting America’s old-growth forests, and letting new giants grow, is one of the biggest single steps we can take to combat climate change,” said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, one of the coalition member groups.

As of this writing, the Biden administration has yet to follow through on its promise to actually protect mature and old trees from logging. The Executive Order, which requires an inventory of old trees and forests on federal lands, is a key step, but does not include any substantive protections from logging. It didn’t even mention logging as a threat.

In retrospect, Biden’s promise seems hollow. In January 2022, the US Forest Service announced its intention to log 50 million acres of forest over the next ten years, much of it old growth. In June, the US Forest Service approved clearcutting thousands of acres in Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana, including mature and old-growth trees. In Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon, the Forest Service is logging centuries-old ponderosa pines, and in Oregon, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are logging old-growth stands in the Cascades and near the state’s southern coast. And in Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, the Forest Service is logging mature and old-growth trees over 10 feet in circumference under the guise of “thinning.”

“The Biden administration is doing exactly the opposite of what it promised,” Hanson said. “They are logging mature and old trees by the tens of thousands on public lands.” This is what climate change denial looks like in the twenty-first century, he added. “These are people who claim to believe climate change is real, but are proposing things that will make climate change a lot worse.”

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FAQs

Is there logging in Washington state? ›

All logging on private property across the state of Washington is regulated by the Forest Practices Act, and DNR is exclusively responsible for making sure property owners follow the law. Its ruling overrules local regulations; in fact, cities and towns need not even be informed.

Is there deforestation in Washington state? ›

In 2010, Washington had 7.41Mha of natural forest, extending over 49% of its land area. In 2021, it lost 86.8kha of natural forest, equivalent to 43.8Mt of CO₂ emissions. Explore interactive charts and maps that summarize key statistics about forests in Washington, United States.

What state is number one in logging? ›

What State Produces the Most Lumber? According to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Oregon is the top producer of softwood lumber, producing more than 16% of the nation's softwood. Other top-lumber producing states include: Washington.

What state is known for logging? ›

So there you have it — Idaho is the best of the best when it comes to being a logging equipment operators.

Why is there so much driftwood in Washington state? ›

Why are there so many driftwood logs on beaches in the Pacific Northwest? The land is covered with an abundance of trees, which fall into numerous rivers, and float down into the ocean. In winter storms, powerful waves toss the logs back up onto the beaches.

What state has the highest deforestation rate? ›

California

What trees are illegal to cut down in Washington state? ›

Any person who shall break or cut from any lands owned by the state of Washington or shall cut down, remove, destroy or uproot any rhododendron, evergreen, huckleberry, native dogwood or any other native tree, shrub, fern, herb, bulb or wild plants, or any part thereof, within three hundred feet of the center line of ...

What state pays the most for loggers? ›

Logging Workers are compensated at the highest average salary in Idaho, where they receive average pay scales of close to $54,050. Employees who work in this job make the greatest compensation in Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting, where they can earn average pay scales of $43,010.

Do loggers make good money? ›

How much does a Logger make in California? The average Logger salary in California is $44,905 as of October 27, 2022, but the range typically falls between $42,484 and $51,269.

What are 4 types of logging? ›

Types of logs
  • Electrode resistivity devices.
  • Induction logging.
  • Microresistivity logs.
  • Spontaneous (SP) log.
6 Jul 2015

Where does the US get most of its wood? ›

Overall the U.S. imports most of its foreign-made hardwood flooring from Canada, China, Sweden, Indonesia and Brazil. Along with Malaysia, all of these countries except Sweden are also major sources of hardwood molding.

What state has the most hardwood trees? ›

1. Maine. Maine, the northernmost state of the contiguous United States, is home to about 17.7 million acres of forest. This means about 89.5% of the state is forested.

Can you legally collect driftwood in Washington state? ›

Collection of driftwood and wood debris in state parks is prohibited, except where specifically permitted by a park ranger for personal firewood use. poles. permits the owner to retrieve these logs even from private land.

Can you sleep on the beach in Washington? ›

Here are some of our favorite places for beach camping in Washington: Birch Bay State Park, Blaine. Blake Island Marine State Park. Camano Island State Park, Camano.

What is the driftwood rule? ›

If you plan to go beachcombing, a word about a local custom. It's not a law, as such, but you'll cause offence if you break the rule that says you can only pick up driftwood and other flotsam if it's lying below the highest tide mark.

Is the US gaining or losing trees? ›

Overall, the data shows a net loss of more than 100 million hectares. Meanwhile, researchers warned new growth does not cancel out the loss of carbon rich “old growth,” noting that old growth areas provide the ideal ecosystem for many plants and animals to thrive. America is changing faster than ever!

What state has the least amount of trees? ›

In 2021, Haryana had the lowest forest cover with respect to total geographical area in India at 3.63 percent.

What state has the most trees 2022? ›

#1 Alaska. Alaska has a whopping 31.7 Million trees which not only makes it the state with the most trees, but with so few people living there compared to other states, it has 43,401 trees for every person living there.

Is it illegal to cut down trees on your own property Washington State? ›

It depends. If the property is in an urban growth area and is not a protected tree, you may cut down any tree on your property. For locations outside of urban growth areas, there are stricter rules about how big a tree needs to be before it can be cut down.

Do I need a permit to cut down a tree on my property in Washington State? ›

A Class IV-General Forest Practices (logging) permit may be required to cut down trees on your property in association with clearing and development activities.

Can I cut my neighbors tree in Washington State? ›

Generally, Washington State allows an adjoining landowner to engage in relative freedom for self-help to trim the branches and roots encroaching from a neighbor onto his or her property.

Where does most logging in the US occur? ›

Today, most commercial logging in the U.S. occurs in where? Western coniferous forests and southern pine plantations.

How much is timber worth in Washington state? ›

Timber Sales Prices.

The outlying years' forecast prices are unchanged at $350/mbf.

Does Washington have a lot of woods? ›

Of Washington State's 43 million acres of land, approximately 21 million acres are forested. years.

What states have the worst deforestation? ›

State Rankings
OVERALL RANKState1-Year Loss Rank
1California1
2Oregon2
3Colorado11
4South Carolina4
47 more rows
21 May 2021

What is the most forested state in the United States? ›

List by state, district, or territory
RankState, district or territoryPercent forest (2016)
1Maine89.46%
2New Hampshire84.32%
3American Samoa80.84%
4Northern Mariana Islands80.37%
53 more rows

Is wood still expensive 2022? ›

Since the pandemic, lumber prices have skyrocketed to record highs, adding to new-home construction costs. But prices are now coming down. Lumber prices have fallen 12% this week, reaching a new low in 2022. That could be welcome news for new-home buyers and builders.

Will lumber prices go down in 2023? ›

“Lumber prices lead economic activity in housing a year in advance,” writes Shawn Hackett, president of Hackett Advisors in a recent report. “We are optimistic that the US economy will be improving by late 2023 which means that lumber prices should be placing an important low now.”

What tree is worth the most money? ›

An African Black Ebony tree from Gabon could be worth a million dollars, if you can find one. Due to its high value many species of Black Ebony are now extinct or on the verge of extinction.

Are there giant redwoods in Washington state? ›

There is one Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in Leschi Park in Seattle (King County). Leschi Park is an 18.5 acre park in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, named after Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe.

Can I live in the woods in Washington state? ›

Living off-grid in Washington State is legal. However, along with Oregon, the state has some very strict land-use laws designed to protect the environment. While these laws generally don't make it illegal to live off-grid, they do put severe limits on what you can do on your property.

What US city has the most trees? ›

Minneapolis is at the top of the pile with 9,833 trees per capita, followed closely by Kansas City and Cincinnati with 8,672 and 6,292 respectively.

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