A breakthrough model for forest conservation

Posted 3/13/24

By Heidi Eisenhour

District 2 Jefferson County commissioner


In the first week of February, Jefferson County completed one of the final steps in preserving 951 acres of complex, …

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A breakthrough model for forest conservation


By Heidi Eisenhour

District 2 Jefferson County commissioner


In the first week of February, Jefferson County completed one of the final steps in preserving 951 acres of complex, carbon dense forest when it sent a letter to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). These include 671 acres that will expand the Dabob Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area. Some call this part of our county “little Alaska” because of its beauty and ecological richness. We have been working for several years to expand this natural treasure.

Other mature forests will also be set aside in King, Clallam, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. In our letter to the DNR, we asked the state to consider that the 180 acres allocated for Notch Pass in our county be considered for application to acres that Clallam County would like to protect around Lake Sutherland.

All this is a huge win, for conservation and for rural communities.

It is possible because last year legislators in Olympia passed a budget that includes a proviso specifying that a landmark $83 million from Climate Commitment Act funds will be used to conserve 2,000 acres of ecologically significant forests. These forests store substantial amounts of carbon in wood, roots, and leaves. As they grow in the decades to come, these mature forests will draw down increasing amounts of carbon. This is a natural way to slow climate change.

This proviso, won by organizations like Washington Conservation Action, Conservation Northwest and the Center for Responsible Forestry, marks the first time that the state will set aside timber acreage solely for its value in storing carbon. The money will be used to buy younger, replacement forests that can be harvested and thus provide jobs and revenue in rural communities.

Why is this new model a breakthrough? There are many reasons. Here are a few of the most important:


Because it makes sense for people, and it makes sense for nature.

Here in Jefferson County, we’re striving to strike the right balance: We want to celebrate forests, conserve their beauty, and maintain their central role in culture and recreation. We value their “ecosystem services,” such as the way a mature forest stores carbon that otherwise might contribute to climate change. Trees clean our air, filter our water, and provide habitat for wildlife. At the same time, we also want to make sure that conserving forests doesn’t place burdens on rural communities. That’s an equity issue we take seriously and always have in mind. This money allows us to do both: provide income in timber communities while also conserving mature forests.


This funding approach gave DNR the ability to make its biggest forestland purchase in a decade.

DNR acquired 9,000 acres in Wahkiakum County, to be used for timber harvest. Some of those acres will replace those set aside in Jefferson County. Finding appropriate replacement lands can be tricky. Any land transaction can take a long time and can fall through all too easily. The replacement funds gave the state the ability to be nimble, by acting on opportunities to acquire working forestland as it became available. This protects rural economic interests.


We have an opportunity to preserve forests that are truly unique.

The kind of Douglas fir and rhododendron forest around Dabob Bay only occurs in the Pacific Northwest and is globally imperiled. Dabob Bay has long been a conservation priority for the county, and several thousand acres around it have already been set aside. These state funds help lay the groundwork for expanded conservation of this gorgeous and complex landscape.


This proviso illustrates that there are many ways to manage forests.

This historic funding affirms that forests are central to Washington’s response to the climate challenges created by continuing to burn fossil fuels. It shows that it is possible to manage state lands for both public benefit and for rural livelihoods. It builds on the 2022 State Supreme Court’s Conservation Northwest v. Franz decision, which held that DNR can integrate the many public benefits of forests into the management of state forestlands beyond maximizing revenue. In other words, we can both preserve forests for carbon storage and support working forests that sustain rural communities.


Jefferson County is a forest county.

To a casual observer, it may seem that people here either want to log all the forests, or they want to log nothing. In our experience, there are maybe 20 percent of our neighbors at each end of that spectrum. The majority, perhaps 60 percent, stand somewhere in the middle. What we’re trying to do is promote forest solutions that land in that middle ground: to explore how conservation can be part of the mix, and to also explore how sustainable harvesting can be part of the mix.

 We now have a new suite of tools at our disposal, not just the $83 million from this proviso, but also trust land transfer, reconveyance of state lands to the county, and the possibility of a collaboratively developed strategy between the state and the county for management of state forestlands. Using these tools, we can work to preserve forests near residential areas, or that can be joined with existing preserves like Dabob Bay. We can also work to create contiguous working forests that can be managed sustainably.

 The strategy must include both forestry and conservation. We think that new approaches, like those made possible by the $83 million proviso, hold great promise. Another, similar proviso is now in the works in Olympia. Tools like these give our county the best chance of maximizing forested acres into the future.