by Tyler Brown
Less than a mile southeast of Lake Whatcom stands a 46-acre commercial timber parcel called Bessie Sorts. It contains a near old-growth forest resting on a large watershed with trees as wide as four feet, reaching up to 200 feet and as old as 115 years.
In March 2021, Washington state Commissioner Hilary Franz announced plans to review the Department of Natural Resources’s older forest policy and placed the Bessie Sorts forest up for sale to be logged.
In response, conservation groups such as the Center for Responsible Forestry, RE Sources, Mount Baker Sierra Club and the Whatcom Million Trees Project banded together to convince the DNR to spare Bessie.
For decades, the legal justification for harvesting was considered a constitutional obligation to maximize revenue to generate profits for public schools, universities and other public institutions.
The legal precedent was rooted in a court case referred to as Skamania v. State which determined that the state constitution required the DNR to log forests in order to maximize revenue.
Conservation Northwest, a group dedicated to “protect, connect and restore wildlands and wildlife,” filed a lawsuit with the state following the announcement of the Bessie Sorts sale and challenged the interpretation of the constitutional principle.
Chris Reykdal, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction and member of the Board of Natural Resources, repeatedly decried the approach to Bessie Sorts, calling it “a completely inappropriate construct.”
The Lake Whatcom Interjurisdictional Coordinating Team (ICT) was created in 2000 to help coordinate activities and programs between the three jurisdictions overseeing the lake’s water quality — the Bellingham City Council, Whatcom County Council and Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District. It reviewed the proposal and saw no threat to the lake, a major source of drinking water for the city of Bellingham.
The city reviewed the logging request, taking into consideration the State Environmental Policy Act as well as DNR policies, and found no major threat to the drinking water based on the evidence presented to them.
Despite this, conservationists rejected the conclusions and presented evidence that preserving the forest had several major benefits. They said preserving the forest could:
• capture carbon at a high rate,
• provide a habitat for wildlife, and
• cool and preserve watershed drinking water quality that flows into the city.
Objections to the sale spurred protests outside the offices of the DNR in Olympia, Washington. Letters from conservationists asked land commissioner Franz to reconsider and cancel the sale.
More than 1,000 people in Whatcom County called, submitted comments, and wrote letters opposing the sale.
After a year of protest, the Bessie Sorts timber sale was canceled on April 25, 2022.
DNR announced its plans to work with Finite Carbon to create a new carbon credits program to allow major companies to purchase a specific and limited value of carbon emissions to be balanced out by the legacy forests’ ability to absorb them, essentially offsetting or zeroing out the carbon emissions.
The project will allow the state to lease protected lands to interested businesses for carbon sequestration and storage at a price that is “reflective of the economic value of logging,” according to the DNR.
In response, conservationists find themselves mixed on the idea of allowing continued release of greenhouse gasses through the use of carbon credits, but they understand the need to maximize revenue for “the public good,” along with the preservation of up to 10,000 acres of state forests.
Tyler Brown is a senior at Western Washington University and an intern for Whatcom Watch, finalizing a bachelor’s degree in visual journalism with dreams of being a foreign correspondent someday.