Court ruling clears way for carbon storage projects on state logging lands

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources can move ahead on projects to store carbon in forests, a Thurston County judge ruled. (Marty Cozart/DNR)

Forests on Washington’s public logging lands can be left uncut if the state finds that leaving trees standing to fight climate change is a better use than timber sales, a state judge ruled earlier this month.

Two years ago, the Department of Natural Resources proposed a project to lease 10,000 acres of state land for carbon capture projects, prompting a lawsuit from Lewis and Skagit counties and a forestry industry trade group.

The two counties and the American Forest Resource Council argued that the state did not do a proper environmental analysis of the project, including what it could mean financially for schools and communities that rely on timber revenue.

But earlier this month, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in the agency’s favor, saying the state can manage its lands as it sees fit – not specifically for logging – and that the department did comply with environmental review requirements.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a statement that the ruling would expand the department’s funding base by adding carbon sequestration to its list of possible revenues.

“Our public forests have multiple benefits and must be stewarded to achieve multiple goals and live up to our values,” Franz said.

Environmentalists, who have pushed the state to set aside public forestland for capturing and storing carbon, praised the decision.

Rachel Baker, forest program director at Washington Conservation Action, said the group saw this ruling as the first test of a state Supreme Court decision issued two years ago. In that ruling, the high court unanimously decided that the department must manage its forests to serve all people as opposed to solely maximizing its revenue from timber harvests.

Washington Conservation Action is one of three environmental groups that intervened in the more recent case to defend the carbon capture project, which the Department of Natural Resources proposed in 2022.

The agency wanted to open 10,000 acres in western Washington to be leased for carbon sequestration – a first-of-its-kind project on state lands. The carbon storage leasing would provide economic value similar to logging the department wrote when the project was first announced.

Carbon forestry projects can take different forms but often involve leaving trees intact so they can absorb carbon dioxide. Projects like this can be translated into credits that can be bought and sold on carbon markets.

Baker said the state’s proposal was specifically dedicated to conserving older, more complex trees.

Lewis and Skagit counties and the American Forest Resource Council said the state was rushing the project, that leaving the 10,000 acres unlogged would not help the state meet its climate goals, and that it could result in a loss of revenue for schools, colleges and other public services.

American Forest Resource Council Spokesperson Nick Smith said the group still has serious concerns about the project but hadn’t settled on its next steps in the legal fight. They could appeal.

“We remain strongly opposed to any scheme that places state trust lands into carbon offset markets,” Smith wrote in an email. “Sustainably managing these forests and using Washington-made wood products are superior climate solutions.”

Conservation groups who support the project say carbon sequestration can have the same financial benefits as logging while addressing climate goals.

“It’s all a balancing act, but this carbon project is a way that we can meet ecological and social goals around protecting these forests while also providing revenue to rural communities,” Baker said.

The ruling likely marks a next step in the state rethinking how it manages public lands. With a new lands commissioner set to be elected in November, Baker said she is hoping the administration will embrace these rulings and look for more carbon projects.

In recent years, the Legislature has considered bills to allow the Department of Natural Resources to sell carbon credits directly in a carbon market. Under current state law, the department is not explicitly allowed to do so. But the agency can lease lands to other groups who can sell the credits and still generate some revenue.

A legislative proposal allowing direct agency sales of the credits has yet to win final approval.

by Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard

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  1. Nonsense a working forest sequesters carbon that is used for building materials then is replanted, not that we shouldn’t protect some forest. But the idea that unused forest has some sort of economic value beyond public use is just lunacy. If that is the case, I have some ocean front property in Arizona for sale, the ocean sequesters more carbon than trees do so it should be worth a fortune. Wink, nod. Right.

    1. Jim,

      The question I had was IF the State chooses to lease land to do sequestration, does it reduce the timber production in the State. If it reduces timber production and demand increases, then some forest somewhere is going to have to produce more to make up for that land leased solely for carbon capture. Does that make it more expensive for development, thereby increasing the cost of housing, reducing the number of available rural jobs locally, and make it less likely to have a reliable and affordable source of building materials to build the 9,000 housing units in Edmonds over the 20 years? Is there a significant difference in carbon storage between working forests (harvested and replanted) versus non-worked forests? Does this create an additional risk of wildfires due to lack of private management of undergrowth? I am sure that the State Agencies have researched all of the impacts and has determined that sequestration leases to environmental groups will not have negative effects on the people in the region. Wink, wink, nod, nod.

      1. I would imagine this is nothing but a revenue stream for government by forcing business to purchase carbon offsets. Isn’t this the idea behind the fossil fuel cap and trade program? A lot of forests are years or decades from a harvest point, why not sell that time to companies needing to purchase carbon offsets. If there is anything for sure in this world government is going to maximize the amount of tax it can excerpt. The whole idea seems a bit criminal to me and a further expansion of government size and control. Just a singer of simple songs.

  2. Being married into a multi-generational logging family, with people still actively involved, all I have heard about is the incredible lack of supply of raw timber materials for building. The demand is far outstripping the supply, and as all I am sure are aware, that with our state mandated growth, that demand is going nowhere. Put on top of that, this is an incredibly dangerous job and some of the job sites which are open to logging are steep and very rural/deep, adding to the danger of removing said timber. People need to understand that logging is a form of farming, and already has massive regulations around replanting and forest maintenance. It is in fact, a renewable resource as much as people want to say it is not. It just takes time to get back to neutrality, and what is logged today will be logged by the next generation. It is just how it works unless we want to build with another material that is most likely going to be far more expensive. Just more wishful thinking by ill informed people who sit behind desks and are not the ones felling trees to help in our building economy and trying to support their families.

  3. These programs can and do work provided there are the appropriate and auditable baseline and measuring protocols. These programs are not about preservation usually, but about sustainable forestry. The better the protocols and auditability, the better the pricing. These types of credits can be used to satisfy Scope 3 emissions now, though I expect there will be accusations of green washing, et al. All of this is better than letting a revue opportunity go unused by the State.

    1. What exactly do these programs work for,? And why should government be looking for ways to further tax the people? The government created the need and is forcing the business to pay a tax/purchase carbon credits which is passed onto us then takes the taxpayers resources and sells them back to the companies they are leveraging the tax on. This is a ponzi scheme perpetrated by the government on taxpayers.

  4. You are making assumptions not based on fact. This particular program would provide another revenue stream to the DNR for what they essentially do any way – manage the state’s forest lands. No impact on taxpayers that I am aware of. These are voluntary credits, not mandates. Agreed that the CCA is all buggered up and is a slush fund, but this program is not that.

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