by Brel Froebe and Rob Lewis
Get on Google maps and take a satellite view of Whatcom County’s lowland forests. Not the uplands, the deep green carpet flanking the white dome of Mount Baker, which is National Forest land, but the lower forests, the 4-6 miles on either side of the Nooksack as it travels south from Glacier, then turns west toward Nugents Corner before entering the Whatcom farmlands.
Most of this land is either privately owned or managed by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and it appears less like a carpet than a mosaic of broken tiles, with numerous patches of speckled tan amongst various shades of green. The tan patches are recent clearcuts, and the pale green patches are clearcuts turned into tree plantations, like the bright green shoots of a fresh crop. There are medium green shapes as well, which are plantations that have grown a bit, awaiting harvest according to DNR’s harvest rotation. Finally, there are veins, slashes and splotches of darker green. These are older forests, and scattered among them stand the last shreds of the lowlands’ original forest integrity, which once spread unbroken over the land.
They are called “legacy forests” because that’s what they hold: the land’s original biotic legacy. Even though they’ve been logged, it was done prior to industrial clearcutting, with smaller, less desirable trees left behind. Such leave-behinds have since grown into towering giants, some five feet in diameter. Equally important, these forests were never sprayed and replanted, so that they regenerated naturally, embodying the land’s original complexity and diversity, and are well on their way to becoming old growth.
Yes, there’s old growth emerging in those lowland hills! But it’s going fast. Only about 6,400 acres of unprotected legacy forests remain of the 89,000 acres DNR manages in Whatcom County. And if things go according to plan and procedure, most of that true forest legacy will join the patches of tan clearcut and then pale green monochrome tree plantations. Fortunately for us and the forests, there’s a group of citizens racing to find these forests, catalog them and raise the kind of public awareness needed to save them. They belong to a group called the Center for Responsible Forestry (CRF) and they’re looking for more forest-loving folks to help.
Founder, Stephen Kropp
The inspiration for CRF started around three years ago when its founder, Stephen Kropp, was doing exactly as described above, scrolling around Google maps, when he noticed something unexpected. Kropp, then a water resource engineer for the Wild Fish Conservancy, assumed that mature forests were protected on state-managed forestlands. However, he saw what appeared to be old growth patches of forest in an area slated to be logged, and decided to investigate.
At the time, virtually no one was tracking these legacy forest timber-sales in Washington. Larger environmental groups like Conservation Northwest had pressured DNR to adopt stronger conservation policies, resulting for example in the Marbled Murrelet Long-Term Conservation Strategy, which put thousands of acres of these mature forests into conservation. However, when the strategy was adopted in 2019, it also opened up approximately 80,000 acres of legacy forests for logging. With a background in forest hydrology and a deep love for true, healthy forests, Kropp began visiting legacy forests across western Washington, determined to do whatever he could to keep them from being destroyed.
One of these legacy forests was called “Chameleon,” located in Capitol State Forest. “This was the first timber sale I really campaigned hard to stop,” recalls Kropp. “I distributed fliers door-to-door to nearby residents to educate them about Chameleon. I spoke at community meetings, posted videos of the timber sale on YouTube, and shared photographs of the forest with others I knew in the environmental community. I also created a website to draw attention to the timber sale.” Due to the spotlight Kropp put on Chameleon, a group of autonomous forest defenders engaged in civil disobedience to try and stop the sale, which was the first time since the “timber wars” of the 1980s and 1990s that direct action was used in DNR forests.
Center for Responsible Forestry Created
Although Chameleon ultimately was cut, it brought public awareness to the fact that DNR is steadily liquidating the state’s lowland legacy forests. Out of this awareness, the Center for Responsible Forestry was born.
Through their own boots-on-the-ground forest surveying, they soon had their first success, saving a legacy forest called “Smuggler.” DNR has a policy to protect old growth forests (which they define as older than 1850) larger than 5 acres. But CRF documented old growth in Smuggler, which they shared with DNR. Having no positive response, they took the story to The Seattle Times. In March of 2021, The Seattle Times released an article covering Smuggler (1), while revealing the fact that legacy forests are on the chopping block throughout western Washington.
The resulting awareness pressured Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz to not only remove the old growth forest from the sale, but to declare a temporary moratorium of logging all pre-1900 forests on state lands. (Unfortunately Commissioner Franz lifted this moratorium earlier this year.)
The Smuggler victory put CRF at the center of a growing movement around the state to protect legacy forests. Their strategy is simple and locally based. Using DNR data and maps, they identify legacy forests scheduled to be logged and then support local communities in building grassroots campaigns around those forests. A big priority is bringing community members to see and walk through threatened forests. Once they get to know the places themselves, many walk participants join the campaign by gathering petition signatures, writing public comments to DNR, speaking at DNR meetings, encouraging county elected officials to get involved, or donating. CRF also trains volunteers to help survey legacy forests and gather data regarding why they are unique, which is then used for public comments and community outreach efforts.
One of CRF’s most active chapters is here in Whatcom County, which has conducted two successful campaigns to protect the Upper Rutsatz (2) and Bessie (3) legacy forests. Upper Rutsatz is a 90-acre parcel of the 130-year-old legacy forest bordering the Middle Fork Nooksack and is beloved by the community. After CRF volunteers mobilized community members to submit over 1,000 public comments demanding the sale to be stopped in accordance with the pre-1900 moratorium Commissioner Franz had instituted, DNR withdrew the timber sale. Bessie is a 100-year-old legacy forest in the Lake Whatcom Watershed. A coalition of community groups successfully campaigned for the Whatcom County Council to request a pause on the sale. Now DNR has included both Upper Rutsatz and Bessie as potential candidates for their new Carbon Project. (4)
Rally: Last September
CRF is currently active in Whatcom, Snohomish, King, Pierce, Thurston, Grays Harbor, Mason, Jefferson, and Clallam counties, and is part of a growing coalition of organizations across Washington state pressing for policies that protect all state legacy forests. Last September, hundreds of concerned residents traveled from all over the state to Olympia for a rally to tell DNR to protect legacy forests and manage forests to fight the climate crisis, and every month more people join the movement, including elected officials. The Thurston County Board of Commissioners, for instance, have repeatedly made it clear to DNR that they want all legacy forests protected within their county.
CRF is also engaged in legally challenging DNR’s failure to follow their own policy of ensuring that 10-15 percent of forests in each region of Washington state are mature forests by 2096. Having analyzed DNR’s spatial and estimated-stand-age data, CRF has found that, in many regions, this target will be missed, especially considering the alarming rate in which DNR is clearcutting legacy forests.
No one denies the fact that our society currently relies on forests for wood products and that many of our local communities rely on the economic input of the forest products industry. CRF is not trying to shut down the timber industry or stop logging on all state forestlands. Only around 5 percent of the 1.4 million acres of DNR managed forests in western Washington are unprotected legacy forests. CRF doesn’t contest logging on the other 95 percent, and is committed to ensuring that communities affected by forest protection are made economically whole.
There is a common belief that young forests sequester more carbon than mature forests because the younger trees grow faster. The opposite is the case. Trees continue to increase (5) their carbon drawdown as they age. In fact, a 120-year-old tree is just entering its most powerful phase of carbon sequestration. Not only that, but, by the time a forest product emerges from the mill, up to 85 percent (6) of its carbon has already been lost; 50 percent is left on the forest floor as gnarled stumps, branches and roots, 20 percent is lost in milling, and 17 percent is lost in transportation.
It’s important to realize that, when a forest is logged and replanted as a plantation, the first 15 years of growth are carbon negative, meaning they are releasing more CO2 than they are storing, not to mention all the emissions generated from the logging and wood product manufacturing process. But left standing, mature Pacific Northwest forests are the most carbon dense forests in the United States. We need these legacy forests to be storing and sequestering as much carbon as possible, not creating more emissions.
Legacy forests also make our communities more resilient to global warming. Multiple studies show that mature forests are more resilient to wildfires than younger plantation forests. They also resist flooding, landslides, and drought, which are all increasing.
Fish also need mature forests. Scientists estimate (7) that the Nooksack River’s endangered salmon species, such as Chinook, will likely go extinct in less than 30 years unless something is done about low summer flows and high water temperatures, conditions exacerbated by clearcutting and tree plantations. Multiple studies show that mature forests provide twice the streamflow and significant cooling compared to younger plantation forests.
The climate crisis is co-occurring with the species extinction crisis. The Seattle Times recently reported (8) that Western red cedars are experiencing severe climate-induced die-offs. It makes no sense to log the oldest trees that support genetic resilience to future generations of trees, especially in the face of this crisis. Legacy forests are healthy ecosystems that contain more biodiversity and intact mycelial networks, as compared to monocrop tree plantations. All of these benefits point to the fact that legacy forests are worth more standing to our community.
Funding From Carbon Markets
“But what about our schools,” you might wonder. “Doesn’t money from logging DNR forests go to building schools and providing essential infrastructure? Isn’t DNR required by law to generate as much money as possible for these things?” According to State Superintendent Chris Reykdal, Washington schools now only get 1 percent (9) of their funding from logging revenue. He has also said on numerous occasions that we must find better ways to fund our schools than logging forests. There are already programs in place like the Trust Land Transfer Program, which makes communities economically whole while putting ecologically important forests in conservation.
There are also carbon markets that have the potential to generate significant sustained revenue for communities, rather than a one-time lump sum from a timber sale. DNR has the tools to generate revenue and protect legacy forests — they just need to implement them on a larger scale.
Lastly, the State Supreme Court recently ruled that DNR is allowed to manage lands for “a myriad of benefits,” including environmental and social benefits, not just maximum profit from logging. In the past, DNR has maintained they’re required by law to maximize revenue for the trust beneficiaries, but that is no longer the case. Clearly, the long-term benefits of these legacy forests far outweigh the short-term economic gains of clearcutting them.
Protecting legacy forests is a local solution to the climate crisis by which we can actually do something! If you love the forests and want to join the legacy forest movement, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved. Also, please visit www.c4rf.org to sign up for occasional updates and invites to upcoming forest walks. You can also donate on the website. Your support will go a long way in supporting a volunteer-powered organization with a shoestring budget. Lastly, go to https://www.c4rf.org//carbon-project-petition to sign CRF’s petition to protect all legacy forests in Whatcom County. Thank you for caring about our community’s healthy forests and healthy watersheds!
Brel Froebe is an educator and community organizer living in the occupied Lummi territory of Bellingham. Brel grew up along the Middle Fork Nooksack River, and is passionate about protecting the surrounding forests and watersheds. Brel works with CRF as their volunteer coordinator.
Rob Lewis is a poet, essayist, natural-materials house painter, and activist on behalf of the more- than-human world. His writings have been published in Resilience, Dark Mountain, Counterflow, Atlanta Review, Whatcom Watch and others. He is the author of the poem/essay collection, “The Silence of Vanishing Things.”