Forestry decisions like the Bessie timber sale must better prioritize climate change, water quality

The logging proposed in the Bessie timber sale would degrade Lake Whatcom, 100,000 people’s drinking water source. | December 22, 2021

Update, January 31st: More than 1,000 people have sent letters to the state Board of Natural Resources urging them to stop the proposed sale or at the very least consider an alternative action. The sale was removed from the BNR agenda. Thank you for taking action! While we can’t confirm this was in response to public pressure, we hope that DNR is taking this time to reassess this sale after hearing from you. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

If you’ve ever stood in a grove of century-old Northwest trees, you’ve probably felt it. If you’ve traced sunbeams piercing a canopy and firs and cedars down to the loamy forest floor beneath your feet, you have a sense for how special these places are. And the more we learn about mature forests, the more reverence they garner. The science is clear that older, mature forests help absorb water like a sponge and stabilize steep slopes — especially important in light of recent heavy rains, flooding and road wash-outs in Whatcom and Skagit Counties.

We also need old forests to protect biodiversity, reduce runoff, help keep water in streams during the dry season and sequester carbon. Climate change projections have changed immensely in the last 20 years. That means the need for natural (i.e., free) carbon storage and climate adaptation strategies in our forests are more important now. Older trees are critical to this, and cutting them is a short-sighted practice.

The $2.2 million Bessie timber sale proposed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) puts 46 acres of trees that are 100+ years old (an area called Unit 2) at risk of being logged within the Lake Whatcom Watershed, right where our whole community needs them to protect drinking water. In all, the sale would allow 166 acres of forest to be cut down—that’s about 125 football fields

Heavily logged areas cause excessive amounts of naturally occurring phosphorus to flow into Lake Whatcom, which threatens to trigger unchecked algae blooms, which harm fish and can make drinking water treatment costs skyrocket.

On top of this, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham are already working to protect thousands of acres of forest in the Lake Whatcom watershed. The DNR shouldn’t undermine these efforts. The DNR told The Bellingham Herald that clearcutting is the only way to “provide an appropriate return on investment for road maintenance and staff time costs.” Ecosystems and sensitive species decline are outpacing protection efforts. That tells us DNR’s approach to timber sales is failing and that more aggressive measures are needed to ensure critical habitat and ecosystem services are maintained.

Ideally, we’d see as little timber harvest in the Lake Whatcom watershed as possible — not a wild idea given that the Bull Run Watershed, the source of Portland, Oregon’s drinking water, is off limits to logging. Given the present-day realities of forestland ownership and management in the watershed, along with the insufficient protections in place, we urged DNR to amend its proposed sale to spare as many century-old trees and as much forest health as possible.

After reviewing the timber sale proposal, RE Sources proposed an Alternative Action, which included recommendations for:

  • Removing mature trees with origin dates between 1876-1926 (estimated at 50 acres) from this sale;
  • Removing all of Unit 2 from the sale;
  • Employing Variable Density Thinning (VDT) as an alternative to variable retention harvest (a small step up from clearcutting) for any remaining portions of the sale;
  • Should you choose to leave Unit 2 in the sale, see recommendation #1 above and employ VDT on any remaining areas of that Unit.

The comment letter we submitted in late November 2021 urged the DNR to choose a forest management plan that takes climate change into account and provides protection from pollution of the drinking water source for 100,000 residents of Whatcom County. In just three days, 226 advocates signed on in support.

Thinning practices such as those outlined in our letter yield the same, if not increased, economic benefits over time both in timber value and in ecological and climate adaptation values. Unfortunately, DNR is still moving forward with this sale under its original forest management plan. The Bessie timber sale is disconcerting in its own right, but it’s also just one of many more timber proposals like it in the Lake Whatcom Watershed — both by DNR and by private timber interests — slated for the next decade.

We appreciate the need for timber as a building material with the potential to be harvested sustainably, as well as the need for tax revenue to help fund our schools and essential services. However RE Sources is growing increasingly concerned that the costs of harvesting mature forests far outweigh the benefits in the watershed we rely on to provide drinking water to 100,000 people and growing.

We will continue to speak out against imminent threats to mature forests throughout our region, but ultimately, we’ll need policy shifts to prevent timber proposals that would see mature forest stands in the Lake Whatcom Watershed wiped out from ever coming forward.

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