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Washington state's efforts to trade timber revenue for carbon credits

Looking upward through dry evergreen trees on state lands that are so densely planted, the light hardly comes through and many branches are spindly with no foliage.
Bellamy Pailthorp
A state forest near Samish Overlook, not far from Bow, Washington. The trees here are so densely planted that many of the trees' inside and lower branches have no foliage and have likely died.

It’s Climate Solutions Week at KNKX and NPR. We're hearing stories from across the country and around the world about tactics being used to address climate change.

One solution Washington state is trying is setting aside certain state forests for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which warms the planet.

KNKX environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp joined Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick in studio to explain more about what's going on.

Listen to the conversation above or read the transcript below.


Kirsten Kendrick: So when did the state start talking about this? I feel like it's been a while.

Bellamy Pailthorp: It has. This is an idea that the Department of Natural Resources has been working on since at least April of last year, when Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz announced a state trust land carbon project that would set aside up to 10,000 acres of mature forests as carbon sinks.

Excerpt of Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz at news conference on April 6, 2022: “This project will store carbon, while providing untouched habitat for numerous species. And the carbon credits generated from these leased lands will support local budgets for education and essential services to the tune of 10s of millions of dollars. The trees that are cleaning the air and the water in our community will now also help fund its schools and libraries.”

KK: Wow, tens of millions of dollars, Bellamy. So what's happened since that announcement a year and a half ago?

BP: Yeah, it sounds like a great idea. But there was a lawsuit from the timber industry. As she alluded to, these state forests are required under the state constitution to generate revenue for rural counties, for things like schools and libraries. And it turns out that right now, the state can't earn enough money on selling carbon credits for this to pencil out. They have to have a middleman right now. And so they’d earn like 30 cents on the dollar of what they need. There was an attempt to fix this legislatively, it got watered down, the whole project is stalled. So with that stalled, there is a new program going forward now, though. It's called the Natural Climate Solutions Account.

KK: Alright, so what is that?

BP: So this is a slightly more modest proposal, to set aside the same kinds of state forests. These are mature, complex forests that are not quite old growth. And to set them aside, the way to do that is to pay for it with new revenue from the Climate Commitment Act.

KK: Yeah, you have been reporting on the auctions they've been holding for that, right?

BP: Exactly. And that's generating tons of revenue, and that revenue has to be spent on climate programs. So this is a new one that they've come up with, and they've set aside enough to pay for 2000 acres of mature forests that they would then not log, as well as younger forests to replace that revenue -- you know, those would be logged in their stead. And so counties are working with the state Department of Natural Resources to determine which 2000 acres of this kind of forest can be protected in this first round. And we should hear by the end of December, which forests are approved on their list.

KK: And we keep talking about forests and types of trees and things. You recently took a tour of some forests.

BP: Yeah, I wanted to learn more because activists have been saying that there are actually 77,000 acres of these mature, complex forests that could qualify for this program. With only 2000 acres being set aside, the activists would really like to save them all. So I went on a hike to see a bunch of different DNR forest lands different examples of management. A non-profit advocacy group called Re-Sources, out of Bellingham, their policy guy, Alexander Harris, led a tour. And he was showing us an example, in this clip, of a poorly managed forest that was planted probably about 40 years ago. And so we stepped inside.

ALEXANDER HARRIS: Okay, what do people notice in this plantation stand? Let's just start with cooler. It's dark. It's cooler and dark, right? There's very little light coming through. And what does that mean for the forest floor? Less vegetation, it's brown, it's dirt. There's no undergrowth. Here it is, because this is an unnaturally dense plantation.

BP: And in fact, there's so little light coming in there, Kirsten, that you're standing amidst all of these branches that are almost touching, that are dead because they haven't got enough light, sunlight coming in. And he pointed out that this is also a very fire-prone forest -- kind of a tinderbox in the making. So activists like Alexander Harris are saying, we should thin these forests, and we should plant forests that are more ecological. And the thinning of these forests and longer rotations, in terms of planting and harvesting, could be paid for, he says, with carbon credits -- as kind of a bridge solution for that. Less timber revenue as a result, but carbon credits would bring in the difference. So you could get the climate benefits and healthier forests all in one climate solution.

KK: All right, so it sounds like there's still a need for some policy change or other action here moving forward right?

BP: Yeah -- tons of energy and ideas around this stuff, but really just baby steps at the moment. There's a lot to figure out still. State DNR says we can't set aside all 77,000 of these acres all at once, there's too much revenue that would have to be replaced and whole timber economies that would fall if we did it all at once. So, it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming years

KK: All right Bellamy. thank you so much for coming in and talking through some of this.

BP: My pleasure.

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
Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.