650 acres of forest conserved in Whatcom County thanks to Climate Commitment Act funds

December 18, 2023

Statewide, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will conserve 2,000 acres of mature forests on trust lands traditionally managed to generate logging revenue.

Update, January 24th, 2024 — Whatcom County Council voted to pass their letter of concurrence for the mature forest protections in the county outlined by the Washington Department of Natural Resources in December. The proposed conservation of swaths of Whatcom County forest amounting to 627 acres was made possible through the allocation of Climate Commitment Act (CCA) funding for climate adaptation and carbon storage. Thank you for your advocacy!

Bellingham, Wash. (December 18, 2023) — The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) today announced the protection of 2,000 acres of largely mature, structurally-complex forests, often referred to as legacy forests, across western Washington as part of a state investment in climate adaptation and carbon storage.

Of that total, 650 acres of forests in Whatcom County (the most of any county in the state except Jefferson County) were conserved through a new program funded by Washington’s cap and invest program, known as the Climate Commitment Act (CCA). This funding source allows DNR to protect state trust lands with mature forests of exceptional value for carbon storage and habitat, without adversely impacting the trust beneficiaries like counties and schools that currently receive money from DNR timber sales. 

The CCA program allocated $70 million for DNR to buy private timberlands that will be managed by DNR to generate replacement revenue, thereby allowing the agency to conserve mature forests that would have otherwise been logged. The replacement lands will still be logged to generate revenue, they’ll be managed to a higher conservation standard than they had been previously. 

“When we protect these stands, we are protecting the old-growth of the future,” said Alexander Harris, Land & Water Policy Manager with regional environmental group RE Sources. “Mature and old-growth forests can help attenuate the floods, landslides, droughts, and wildfires that climate change will bring to our neck of the woods.”

Included in the 650 conserved forestland in Whatcom County are 75 acres known as Brokedown Palace, located along the Middle Fork Nooksack River. This parcel was scheduled for auction and logging in 2023 until the local community mobilized to protect it, successfully urging a pause of the sale on two separate occasions in 2023. This stand of mature forest is situated on steep slopes near the site of a multi-million dollar dam removal project aimed at recovering the river’s salmon runs. Community advocates argued clear-cutting Brokedown Palace would destabilize the hillside, increasing sedimentation and increasing risk of a landslide that would undermine salmon recovery efforts. 

Also included are 575 acres in the Lake Whatcom watershed, the drinking water sources for more than 110,000 people, including the City of Bellingham. The lake is designated as an impaired water body due to high phosphorus levels. Since phosphorus can be introduced by land disturbances including development and logging, the County and and the City of Bellingham have prioritized conservation efforts in the watershed. The area conserved today includes the Bessie Timber Sale, a sale that was canceled after community outcry and then included in a pilot carbon program announced by DNR in 2022. Numerous legal challenges have put the future of that program in doubt, meaning today’s conservation decision adds a more durable layer of protection for the mature forest. Also conserved within the Lake Whatcom Watershed are planned timber sales known as Nessie, Szechuan Beef, Chicken Katsu, and Mushu Pork.

“Our community rallied behind key parcels along the Middle Fork Nooksack River and mature stands in the Lake Whatcom watershed — and DNR heeded the call,” said Harris. “Today’s news shows that even during times of division and stagnation in our country’s politics, local grassroots power can move the needle on tackling the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis.”

Mature forests are old forests between 80-150 years old with biological and structural complexity that is absent from tree plantations. These forests are not yet old-growth, but are already demonstrating some old-growth characteristics. Scientists have spent decades documenting the special wildlife habitat that these forests provide, as well as their ability to enhance watershed health and resilience. 

While the first phase of the CCA climate adaptation program applied to 2,000 acres, it’s estimated that over 50,000 acres of mature forests remain unprotected on DNR land. A total of eight counties asked to be included in phase 1 of this program, but only five were given acreage allocations. 

“We applaud Commissioner Franz and the DNR on using climate adaptation money to protect these mature forests,” said Harris. “This is a major win, but thousands of acres of mature forest will be lost in the coming years without additional action. The path ahead is clear: More acreage must be designated through the CCA climate adaptation program and Commissioner Franz and the Board of Natural Resources must develop a Mature Forest Policy that permanently protects these stands once and for all.” 

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Founded in 1982 and based in Bellingham, Washington, RE Sources is a nonprofit that mobilizes people in Northwest Washington to build just and thriving communities and protect land, water, and climate on which we all depend. We do this work through advocacy and education. RE Sources also operates the RE Store, non-profit program with a retail location in the Fountain District of Bellingham that exists to divert as much reusable material as possible from the landfill and to build a culture of reuse in our community. For more information, visit re-sources.org.