State Timber Harvests Are Each as Unique as the Names They Go By

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Brokedown Place. Jumping Jack. Goldfish. Silver Charm. Camp Draper.

Evocative? Yes. Unique? Definitely. And just like their unique names, the state-land timber harvests managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources get individualized pre-auction assessments.

DNR’s primary reason for growing forests on state trust lands is to provide a quality timber harvest opportunity capable of generating funds for public beneficiaries, primarily schools. Timber harvests have generated nearly $900 million for beneficiaries over the past five years.

“Timber sales are a vital part of how we’re able to support schools and local governments throughout Washington,” says Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the elected official who leads the Department of Natural Resources. “Just like each school and community has unique needs, these harvests receive individualized approaches to make them sustainable and environmentally sound — and they come with creative names that reflect that approach.”

Before a timber harvest is offered for sale, state foresters make a series of assessments. They review data and make site visits asking things like… Where are the streams and wetlands located? What are the potential effects of this harvest on water quality? How will the harvest affect fish and wildlife habitat? Are there nearby slopes that require a geologic assessment? Are there other areas that will require special attention?

As DNR foresters make these assessments they commonly find areas that do need special consideration. They use this information to create a set prescriptions, or rules, that a timber harvest company will have to abide by if they submit the winning bid to log the land. It’s at this point that the timber harvest gets its distinctive name, often inspired by the land itself. Ram’s Horn. Ninebark. Summer Breeze.

If a harvest has too many special requirements, timber companies will be more hesitant to bid for harvesting rights. This may lead to a lower bid and result in less revenue for schools and public services. This situation could also leave DNR exposed to legal action for failing to meet its legal mandate to generate that revenue. Alternatively, a harvest with too few restrictions could fail to adequately protect public lands and unnecessarily damaging public lands for years to come.

That’s why the proposed harvest, including the requirements a timber harvest company will need to meet, are reviewed in a transparent process after the assessment is complete. Proposed harvests go through a public comment process, called SEPA (an abbreviation for the State Environmental Policy Act, which created the procedure), designed to ferret out any site-specific environmental concerns that may have been missed initially. Then, the proposed harvest goes to the Board of Natural Resources, which is comprised of industry and beneficiary stakeholders. The public is invited to attend and provide comments at their public meeting, where the board then decides if the proposed harvest is approved for sale.

The process takes time – normally one to two years.

Only after these steps, and with full knowledge of all the requirements, do timber harvest companies get the opportunity to bid on a timber harvest. The highest offer — the bid that will generate the highest revenue for the public beneficiaries — wins.

So what are the possible prescription restrictions that a harvest company may have to abide by? They run can be anything from stream buffers, to trees that must remain or the mix of trees to replant, to how and when the harvest should be done.

Timing timber harvests to the seasons

Timber harvests can be restricted to the drier summer months in areas where runoff may be a special concern. Alternately, colder areas at higher altitudes may benefit from a winter harvest, when the ground is frozen or protected by a layer of snow.

Based on the site conditions, DNR may also set the harvesting system that companies can use. Some systems have advantages protecting soil, water, fish, amphibians or wildlife in given situations.

Harvest systems matched to meet the need

Ground-based harvesting systems are typically used on state trust lands with less extreme terrain, on soils not easily compacted and in areas with good road access. Look for them in flat areas and on slopes of less than 35 percent in Western Washington and less than 50 percent in Eastern Washington. These operations may be combined with rubber tire skidders, tracked skidders or shovels to achieve desired protection objectives.

Rubber tire skidders are used to push or pull logs distances of up to 700 feet in Western Washington and 1,300 feet in Eastern Washington. They can disturb and compact soils, so use is generally limited to non-sensitive areas. Tracked skidders, or “dozers,” perform many different jobs on a logging site. They can pull large loads of logs, operate on moderate slopes and work in softer soils with less compaction. Shovels are a versatile piece of equipment that put less pressure on the ground than skidders. You may see these operated around riparian areas, trees not being harvested, and across uneven surfaces with stumps, boulders and heavy brush. Shovels can also be used for site preparation, road construction and installing culverts. A fully mechanized harvesting system is another option that compacts the ground less than skidders. This system performs the entire harvest process, such as cutting, forwarding and bucking.

Cable systems partially or completely suspend logs moving them to landing zones up to 1,000 feet away. Because cable systems require special crews, they’re more expensive and are generally only required when ground-based systems can’t be used. Look for them on state trust lands with slopes greater than 35 percent, areas with broken topography, or wet or easily compacted soils.

Helicopter logging may be the only option in areas where road construction would be too expensive or would adversely affect an environmentally sensitive feature. Look for it on slopes steeper than 40 percent, though it’s not common, because it’s so expensive.

Regardless of the system, state land harvests require harvesters to work where they will disturb less soil, which can cause erosion and soil compaction while making it harder for trees to re-establish. To ensure this happens, DNR has timber harvest companies plan their skid trails in advance and mark the approved areas clearly.

Regenerating forests, regenerating value

Prior to a harvest being completed, DNR silviculturists make a plan to replant the working forest, accounting for myriad factors, including elevation, aspect and seed zone.

The silviculturists start with information gathered during DNR foresters’ environmental assessments before the timber harvest, and account for any adverse conditions at the site, such as the presence of laminated root rot or pests like the spruce weevil.

Then, silviculturists focus in on the details of the site. Generally, sites below 2,000 feet in elevation are more fertile than higher-elevation sites, so the planted seedlings will face competition from other plant species. Using information from reforesting similar sites, silviculturists decide whether a site preparation treatment will be necessary. The treatments control competition from both native and invasive species, giving the seedlings a better chance to establish themselves. At higher elevations, those treatments are less likely to be necessary. Depending on the site’s aspect (which direction the slope faces), different trees may be more likely to thrive.

Another important factor in replanting is using seedlings from the same tree zone as the harvest. Knowing the origin of a seed is crucial to determining where the tree will survive and grow successfully because of different environmental and climate differences. Native conifers in the Pacific Northwest have some of the highest levels of genetic variation found in plants.

After preparing the site after the harvest, foresters come in the next spring and repopulate the forest with seedlings selected specifically for that area. At lower elevations, about 300 Douglas-fir and 100 western red cedars are planted per acre; at higher elevations, about 300 Douglas-fir and 60 western redcedars are used.

“When you plant, you control the stocking, what’s growing there and how far apart it’s spaced,” says Cory McDonald, a forester in DNR’s Northwest region.

Some other native tree species are also introduced at the time to increase biodiversity, and foresters working at higher elevations also allow for natural repopulation of the forest. Douglas-firs and western redcedars are planted because they have the best return on financial investment to fulfill DNR’s obligation to generate money for its beneficiaries, like public schools and local governments.

“In order to have trees for the future, we have to have prompt reforestation with healthy, vigorous trees, that’s the biggest thing,” McDonald says. “If we just didn’t plant, there would be a lag time before the stand became naturally reforested. It would happen over time, but it wouldn’t be as quick, and that’s tougher to manage because you don’t have the certainty over the timing.”

The minimum amount of trees to replant after a timber harvest on state or private lands in Washington is 190 trees per acre, though most landowners plant far more than that so they have a bigger yield to harvest.

DNR has a nursery where it grows many of its trees for replanting from seed, a process that takes two years before trees are ready to be planted. That means foresters need to estimate years ahead what they will need to properly re-establish our working forests.

Harvest frequency

There’s no general rule for knowing when a landscape will be ready to harvest. Different species grow at different rates. Conditions can vary from one hillside to another. Droughts can last have a significant influence. The agency’s general approach, however, is to harvest trees once their growth rate slows, for the best return on the public’s investment.

When DNR prepares a harvest auction, it considers the surrounding area, too. Weighing factors include the maturity and size of trees on adjacent land, along with the size of the harvest area itself. Timber harvests are generally limited to 100 acres, though may be up to 120 acres in special situations. They also must border areas where trees have not been recently harvested – either adjacent to 30 percent mature forest, 60 percent young forest or 90 percent newer forest with trees growing there more than 5 years. The result is a landscape with trees of various sizes. The habitat is varied and no single watershed is too heavily affected within a short timeframe.

Accommodations for recreation

Many state forest lands are also prime areas for recreation. The agency retains a no-harvest buffer around its campgrounds, but with 1,500 miles of trail on DNR-managed lands, it’s inevitable that timber harvests affect trails.

IMG_5097DNR Forester John Moon with one of the trees that DNR identified as one to exclude from the Pathfinder Timber Sale in 2017 in Reiter Foothills State Forest for its importance to the local 4×4 community. (DNR photo)

When a trail traverses a harvest, it is closed temporarily while the harvest completed to protect public safety. After the harvest, the DNR and volunteers clean up and reopen the trail.

Some consider newly harvested areas less attractive than mature forest. As an accommodation, the agency may locate the harvest’s leave trees along trails or roads to provide a visual barrier. However, timber harvests can also provide an unexpected benefit: enhanced views.

Special landscapes get special protections

Not every landscape is appropriate for timber harvests. In addition to potentially unstable slopes, DNR also will not harvest at the state’s most precious ecological areas as a part of the natural areas program. In addition, uncommon habitats such as talus fields, caves, cliffs, oak woodlands, areas bald of vegetation, mineral springs and large mature (“old growth”) forests are excluded from harvest areas.

Areas are also excluded when they provide important habitat for endangered or threatened plant or animal species, such as the spotted owl or marbled murrelet.

All told, approximately one-third of the state lands managed by DNR are not harvested for timber.

Protecting and sustaining people, too

DNR is a founding member of the Logger Safety Initiative, which promotes occupational safety in the logging industry. Logging is historically one of Washington’s most hazardous industries — one where workers, particularly in non-mechanized logging jobs, suffer serious injuries much more often than in any other major industry while employers struggle to afford accelerating workers’ compensation insurance costs.

In response, DNR, private land owners, logging industry employers and the Department of Labor & Industries formed the Washington State Logger Safety Initiative. The agency continues as an active landowner member of this broad-based effort to promote occupational safety, reduce fatalities, and decrease the frequency and severity of workplace injuries in the logging industry. DNR also works to include companies logging on state lands as participating members.

Sustainable forests

DNR has also achieved multiple sustainable landowner certifications. Certified forests are grown to an approved set of standards, which demonstrate environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management practices that promote responsible forestry. The agency aims to exceed best management practices, and it goes through a rigorous third-party audit of its practices every two years to identify any areas in need of improvement.

These certifications are good for harvest companies, too. Timber harvested from state lands can able to demand higher prices in the marketplace due to its FSC or SFI sustainable certification status. This, in turn, means harvest companies are willing to bid more, providing greater revenue to schools and other beneficiaries.

Case-by-case assessments and care are a big part of how DNR ensures both economically viable and environmentally sound timber harvests on DNR-managed state trust lands. Doing so protects waterways, fish, wildlife, public resources, recreation and the forest’s ability to continue growing timber (a sustainable source of revenue) for public beneficiaries in perpetuity.

The one-of-a-kind names? Well, that part’s mostly just for fun.