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Activists race to document mature forests in hopes of preserving them as carbon sinks

A woman with white hair and a blue shirt looks small between trees in a forest filled with ferns. The closest tree has two pink markers and a sign on it that reads "Timber Sale Boundary."
Bellamy Pailthorp
Kate Lunceford with the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County documents big trees in Ridge Ender, a parcel slated to be logged by DNR.

Last spring, state legislators set aside $70 million of revenue from Washington’s Climate Commitment Act to conserve mature forests that are slated for logging. The money is to be used to purchase state lands from the Department of Natural Resources, as well as replacement tracts to keep timber revenue flowing to beneficiaries that rely on it.

However, the new funding is only enough to cover about 2,000 acres statewide. Community activists estimate there are about 6,000 acres of unprotected mature forests on state lands in Snohomish County alone. They say many of these forests contain trees that are over 100 years old, but don’t meet DNR’s narrow definition of old growth. About 1,000 of those acres in Snohomish County will likely be logged in the next two years.

A man and a woman in hiking clothes sit at the base of a large doug fir tree, in a forest, with sun shining through thick branches around them. Above their heads, a yellow measuring tape encircles the tree trunk, which is twice as wide as where they sit.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Kate Lunceford, right, and Jim Oliver rest after bushwhacking to measure a mature Douglas Fir in the Ridge Ender parcel. They found its diameter at chest height to be 75 inches and estimate this tree to be "at least 200 years old."

On the docket for March is a harvest unit outside the city of Sultan, called Ridge Ender. Getting to it involves climbing over logs, beating back branches and testing your balance at every step. But Kate Lunceford from the League of Women Voters is on a mission to help document big trees, even after recent bushwhacking disturbed a wasp’s nest that left her with 14 stings.

Lunceford said they’re calling on the Snohomish County Executive and the County Council to help prevent the logging of this unit and three others that are up for auction soon.  

“Immediately. Right away, because time is very short to nominate them for the natural climate solutions funding that is available this year,” she said.

On this trip they find a hemlock that’s the biggest one they’ve seen here – and probably at least 150 years old. They add it to their list of legacy trees in this claim that pre-date the invention of the modern chainsaw.

“We understand that lumber is an important product and we are not here to stop logging,” Lunceford said.

“We are just here to set aside these rare lowland (for the most part) 6,000 acres, here in Snohomish County of mature forests.”

The League of Women voters and the Sierra Club’s Sno-Isle Group joined forces with the statewide Center for Responsible Forestry to launch a campaign, to protect all legacy forests in Snohomish County.

Jim Oliver is with the Center for Responsible Forestry. He said tree-planting programs are great, but there’s a sweet spot for carbon storage.

“Once the forest reaches a certain maturity, it stores carbon way faster than for example, a young plantation forest would,” Oliver said.

A man with a beard and a baseball hat points with a branch at a notch in a large tree stump.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Jim Oliver from the Center for Responsible Forestry points at an old-growth stump in Ridge Ender with marks where planks were inserted so loggers could stand on them while using a 2-handed saw. Oliver said there are two or three trees estimated to be at least 200 years old on the parcel.

The activists say 95% of the state-managed forest acres in Snohomish County are young tree plantations that they are not concerned about. But they say mature forests keep water clean, make us more resilient to wildfire and flooding, keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and protect salmon-bearing streams.

They met with Snohomish County leaders on Friday to request that the county start working with local tribes and lobbying DNR to nominate the mature forests they’ve identified as Natural Climate Solutions, under the Climate Commitment Act.

“We are convinced that the only way really that we are going to be able to save these forests is to convince our county council to be our ally,” Lundsford said.

She said DNR has been unresponsive to their requests so far. However, they’ve seen timber sales of mature forests delayed elsewhere in the state, with county support.

“They are just the workhorses for absorbing and storing carbon -- and for being an effective tool for our response to this climate crisis,” Lunceford said.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to