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Originally published Sunday, August 16, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Save Washington's forests for public and environmental benefit

Washington's forests are endangered by development pressure, warns guest columnist Brian Boyle. A University of Washington report highlights the need for Washington state to take action soon to create more "anchor forests."

Special to The Times

IN the midst of the Great Depression, a 1934 University of Washington report identified the key problem then facing the state as the rapid loss of productive forestland. This was the result of timber companies who had "cut and run" and were unwilling or unable to pay county taxes or reforest the land.

That report called for an adjustment to the tax system to "conserve all the social values for society of large forested areas."

Seventy-five years later, the UW published another set of reports about the loss of productive forestland to development. Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes wrote about the findings this month in the Aug. 3 news story "New strategy to save the forests: logging."

As in 1934, the 2009 UW reports call for the state to consider tax and other incentives for forestland owners. That's because we need to help them continue to produce "ecosystem services" — biodiversity, carbon sequestration, bioenergy, jobs, recreation and well-functioning watersheds.

More than 900,000 acres of private forestlands in Western Washington are threatened by conversion to subdivisions and shopping malls. A quick way to assess what a forest is versus what it is not is to fly over Kitsap County in the day and then again at night. What appears to be a forest by day sparkles with housing lights by night. Now look at the maps the UW recently created, to see that the "forests" are subdivided.

These aren't forests; they are trees waiting to be replaced by paving and roofing.

Many of the lands of concern lie in watersheds. Their loss as forests not only will destroy upland habitat but also add costs to Washington taxpayers, who must attempt to remedy downstream impacts on salmon and other natural resources.

Eastern Washington lands around Spokane, the Okanogan and the Columbia Gorge are also threatened by development pressure. As on the west side, the problem is when appraised value of land as forest is less than its value if sold for development. The state must address the real value of these forests to the environment or the values will disappear when the forests are converted.

Also on the east side of the state, the combination of overstressed, bug-killed forests, loss of processing infrastructure and hamstrung national forest managers has ground the forest industry to a halt. The only processing infrastructure is operated by the Yakama and Colville nations and the privately owned Vaagen mill in Colville. All operations are struggling to keep their people employed.

After the 1934 report, Washington acted to acquire 626,000 acres of logged-over land that now are "anchor forests" and provide wood, habitat, jobs and money for schools and counties. Now it's time for the state to act at least as decisively, and create a joint Governor-Legislative Task Force on strategic retention of Washington's working forests and forest industry.

That task force should address an integrated tax structure to encourage long-term forest management to produce a range of ecosystem services; stabilize regulations with landowner incentives to protect forest values such as water and biodiversity; and create woody biomass incentives for alternative energy and to reduce fire risks. Those are the most recent recommendations from the UW's Northwest Environmental Forum that, during the past five years, has convened more than 400 timber, conservation, tribal, governmental and family-forest participants to discuss protecting working forests.

After 75 years, it's time for Washington to step up and create a system of anchor forests again, to help buffer the state's growth patterns, to keep the Puget Sound and other waterways clean by protecting the upland sources, and to support forest landowners who still like the idea of an asset that grows while you sleep. It's time the state of Washington sees it that way and takes action again in 2010.

Brian J. Boyle was Washington's commissioner of public lands from 1981-1993 and works with the UW School of Forest Resources as leader of the Northwest Environmental Forum (www.nwenvironmentalforum.org).

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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