Forestry in King County

Forestry in King County is dysfunctional. Land values realized from development versus forestry, regulatory complexity/ uncertainty and lack of forestry infrastructure discourage the practice of forestry in King County.
Forestry is different things to different people. Wikipedia defines forestry to include traditional wood products raw materials production, as well as wildlife habitat, open space, watershed management and other environmental attributes. Regardless of which perspective the reader subscribes to, there has to be realistic balance of economics and environment for forestry to remain viable.

The moderate environmental community has lately embraced logging. This isn’t because they suddenly love us. The timber wars, fought over the last 3 decades, have largely been won by interests wanting to see vastly less logging. They have done this by subjecting timber activities to endless process, regulatory and legal actions. Now many of these interests are finally realizing that killing off the industry is a major factor driving forestland conversion.

King County has a third of the states population and about 45% of its economic output. The population is growing. The affluent do not want to live the “smart growth” boiler plate bureaucrats have defined for us. Most want suburban living or the country estate. “Smart growth” has limited the supply of lots at the same time all this wealth is looking for that special place. The predicable result makes it impossible for forestry values to compete with development.

The regulatory scheme further aggravates the situation. Senior policy writers at King County advertised that the Critical areas Ordinance (CAO) would make forestry (raw materials production) easier. If the landowner agrees to prepare a forest management plan acceptable to the county, logging can proceed under the state rules. State rules are defined by the traditional logging authority, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and are easier to comply with than county rules defined mostly by the CAO. Sounds good, but the rule is ridiculously complicated. One of the major requirements is the identification of critical areas. I will show later in this document that King County is then over classifying these areas, which dramatically increases buffers.

Another incentive to encourage forestry is the tax reduction a landowner can qualify for by entering the public benefit rating system (PBRS). The PBRS reduces property taxes by classifying property by its current use instead of “highest and best” use. The problem is getting through the process. It is difficult and time consuming, often requiring consultants. Applications received by the end of the year are opened in April. Long timelines and complicated process discourage landowners and forestry contractors from participating in this program.

One idea proposed to take advantage of economies of scale is to get contiguous landowners together to develop plans that a forestry operator can price more like a commercial logging operation. Start up and other costs on small volume jobs diminish returns to landowners. Good idea, but this will not happen much if permitting remains as complicated as it is today. I considered trying to get my neighbors together in my own east King County community to prepare such a project when one elderly lady remarked to me that taxes were about to drive her off her land.

The community is comprised of 15 ownerships with 13 residences from 3 to 30 acres in the forest focus area accessed by SE 3rd east off of highway 203 north of Fall City and south of Carnation. Some parcels are not forested, some are heavily forested. There is sufficient volume to make this work, but after considering the effort versus the possible returns, I elected not to pursue it. Each landowner would have to be approached with the idea. Significant time and effort would be required to explain details. It might take months to get through this and then many more months to prepare the plan and then many more months for the PBRS process. From the bureaucrat point of view, it’s beautiful. From my viewpoint, it’s not worth it.

I don’t think it is very well known inside King County government how difficult it is conduct a forestry business in this county, so I thought it appropriate to briefly relate some recent jobs. Successful jobs are defined by the existence of profit to the operator and highest possible returns to the landowner.

The first was a 20 acre parcel located in the Tolt River Highlands. Timber was 35 year old plantation fir left over from a commercial forest owner. The landowners lived on the property. They were concerned mostly about fire and lack of access in that event. They would have been able to log under state rules, but did not want to be subject to the 6 year moratorium, so they elected to do a county permit. I had proposed a 50% selective cut, which would have paid costs and a reasonable return for the owners. The county forester redefined the project away from forest fire fuels reduction to “forest health” and proposed a 10% initial cut with a subsequent 25% cut. This made no sense economically, but after arguing unsuccessfully for a year, I gave up on this project. Someone else went in there and did a slight cut. It is my opinion that a fire event on this property, with all pertinent facts known, could result in significant County liability. This is one of the projects being touted as a successful result of the Counties forestry program.

Another job was a salvage operation in the Preston area on a 30 acre parcel. Timber was blow down of good quality. A road was 300 feet from the timber. We needed permission to remove the timber with a 10 foot wide skid road to the truck road. There were two seasonal streams that had to be crossed. What should of happened was a meeting with the county forester, the preparation of a simple plan with some seasonal restrictions and moderate erosion control with regard to the streams. 3 or 4 years passed before I heard from the landowners again. They had not been able to get permission and had built a development road to the lot with the trees. After laying on the ground that long, what would have been high quality saw logs were either completely worthless or low quality pulp logs. The revenue did not even pay for the work.

Another job was also storm caused. It was west of Duvall on a 5 acre timber tract with a residence. The owner lost 23 trees in various stages of destruction threatening structures and roads. We went in there and salvaged the logs, cleaned up and burned the debris and left a park like setting. The logs paid for the operation completely, except for the resulting code enforcement action. Apparently property maintenance in this county is illegal and should be punished.

The last project I want to discuss is ongoing. It concerns a 40 acre parcel east of Duvall off of O’Dell road. The owner spent considerable funds using a consultant to prepare a forest plan and submitting for a PBRS on the eight 5 acre tracts created on the site. He wants to log the property and then replant. There are no streams on the property but, as on most lands, there are wetlands. Wetlands are classed in three categories under state rules. Class “A” being the highest, then “B” and then “Forested wetlands”. Class “A” wetlands are like ponds with large open waters. “Forested” wetlands are wet areas with trees growing in and around them. They are defined by a minimum 30% tree crown closure. State rules allow logging of forested wetlands and require a 100 foot buffer from “A” wetlands.

One of the wetlands is on the adjacent property off of the south property line. In my opinion, it meets the definition of a forested wetland, with crown closure and no large open water. The county forester did not agree with that assessment. She found an “A” wetland and required the 100 foot buffer in an area of the landowners nicest timber, requiring 75 mature trees to be left for each acre. We argued over this for months with the project as a whole in jeopardy. She brought in state biologists and wetland experts and now it appears they will settle for a “B” classification with a 25 foot buffer. We can probably live with that, but the permitting is now almost a year in the process and is still not complete. The delays, fees and complication compromise potential success.

Another major factor discouraging forestry in King County is lack of infrastructure. Successful forestry requires an extensive tree growing land base, a substantial transportation system, skilled foresters, loggers and truckers, marketers and manufacturing plants with many supporting businesses.

County, state and federal policies over the last 3 decades have contributed to situations resulting in the closure of all major wood manufacturing plants and most of the marketers of timber and related products in King County. Forest land conversion, removal of the national forest timber program, creation of wilderness and resource areas where logging is not allowed, rules, regulations and restrictions on the resulting base, as well as hostile regulation of the plants themselves has shut down the industry in this County. This means when a remnant tree growing landowner does a job, he has fewer options, longer haul distances and generally depressed profits.

My current contract is 5 million board feet (1400 truckloads), with 2 miles of road construction on 250 acres of private land. Half the property is an old Scott paper Co. plantation that was aerially seeded with Silver Fir or Noble fir (White fir family of trees). The other half of the property is predominately hardwoods, Alder, Maple and Cottonwood. When Scott paper logged and replanted 37 years ago, their plan was to re-supply their pulp mill with a fast growing fibre tree. Today’s global market has me selling the saw log sorts (larger logs) to Korean and Chinese buyers in competition with Russian Pine. There are three marketers that load containers bound for these markets, only one of which is in King County. That marketer was located at Quendall, on Lake Washington, but has moved to Buckley, effectively out of range of this job location (South Snohomish County). If my Everett market disappeared, transportation costs would take a disproportionately large portion of profits due to the higher trucking cost.

On the hardwood portion of this job, Alder is king. Alder used to be a weed tree to the industry, but has been developed into a valuable asset due to the fact that it produces fine finished lumber that takes stain well. It becomes some of the highest quality cabinets and furniture sold mainly into the Northern European markets. Two mills compete for the logs, one in north Snohomish County, and the other in Skagit County. Trucking costs put the Skagit county mill out of range so there is only one option here. Bottom line is transportation costs and lack of competition due to fewer buyers and manufacturing facilities equal less profit and lower stumpage for landowners.

In summation, what exists today in King County is not a forestry program, but a program by and for bureaucrats and planners. Endless process has destroyed much of an industry that could exist in a region that produces the finest timber on earth. Here’s what I would like to see that could restore some of what has been lost:

Make permitting easy, fast and cheap.

1. Move forestry permitting functions away from King County Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) and to the Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP). DNRP is where the current forestry program and foresters are. They provide technical advice and prepare plans, then submit to DDES. Why? Let DNRP write the permits and tie the permit fees to the harvest volume like the state does. Fees have to be dramatically lower than they are today. Today’s permit fees are completely out of line with forestry values.

2. Amend the public rule governing logging in the rural zones. The “meat” can be found in section 6 of the public rule:

6.0 POLICIES:

6.1 This rule is written to identify the general requirements and elements that must be included in Plans required in King County Code 21A.37.060.B.3 and 6, King County Code 21A.08.030 B.2.b, and King County Code 20.36.150.

6.2 The Plan must:

6.2.1 Include a cover Page with property owner name, address, phone number, plan preparer’s name, and the property parcel identification number(s).

6.2.2 Include a Signature/Approval Page, signed by the landowner and approved and signed by a DNRP forester or designee.

6.2.3 Address protection and/or enhancement of the forest resource categories.

6.2.4 Cover a time frame of at least 10 years; longer planning range is encouraged.

6.2.5 Cover the portion of the property that is or will be managed as forest; clearly delineate any developed or other portion of the property that will not be managed as forest.

6.2.6 Be consistent with stated landowners objectives, which must be stated in measureble terms.

6.2.7 Include management actions and timetable. Describe planned actions to address each resource category (below) and to accomplish objectives.

6.3 In addition, a Plan must include a description of the following resource categories:

6.3.1 Forest Health. Insects, diseases, fire protection, environmental factors, animal damage potential, and invasive species listed by the State of Washington;

6.3.2 Timber, Wood Products, and Firewood Cutting. Species composition, age, size, quality, site class, vegetation, density/stocking, operability, location of planned activities, proposed methods and equipment, silvicultural alternatives;

6.3.3 Soils, Soil types, topography, slope stability, erosion potential, road considerations;

6.3.4 Water Quality. Riparian and wetland areas, stream and wetland types, stream bank stability, riparian vegetation, percent tree cover (shade), floodplains, wetland locations, domestic water resources, any herbicide applications;

6.3.5 Fish and Wildlife Habitat. Species present, observed, or anticipated due to habitat type. Size and relative abundance of snags and coarse woody debris. Understory vegetation and plant associations. Describe and map special habitat features or types. Indicate travel corridors, habitat on adjacent properties, and the mapped wildlife habitat network if it occurs on site;

6.3.6 Threatened and Endangered Species. Suitable habitat and any federally or state listed species observed;

6.3.7 Cultural Resources. Describe resources present or on adjacent properties, e.g. historic or archeological sites;

6.3.8 Aesthetics and Recreation (optional). Trails present or desired, significant views, recreational and/or scenic view enhancement opportunities, opportunities for cooperation with adjacent parcels;

6.3.9 Agro-forestry/Special Forest Products (optional). Floral greenery, mushrooms, edible and medicinal plants;

6.4 The Plan must include the following maps:

6.4.1 Current aerial photograph or orthophotograph

6.4.2 A site plan that indicates forest stands, easements, critical areas, and existing or planned non-forest features, such as residences, garages, outbuildings, driveways, powerlines, drainage fields, wells, gardens and yards. If possible, forest practice units and existing or proposed road and landing locations should be indicated.

6.4.3 A soil map.

6.4.4 A topographic map with a contour interval no greated than 20 feet.

6.4.5 All maps should include the following elements: scale, north arrow, name of preparer, date of preparation, and a legend.

6.4.6 Map standards will be no greater than information available from King County at no charge.

How is a small landowner who wants to harvest a few loads of logs going to get through all this? Why does the County need all this information? Are they going to read it?

This is a great example of a program designed by people who love process.

Here’s how I would write section 6:

6.2.1/2 Landowner’s name, description of property/signature.

6.2.3 Enhancement not required, explain results thinning can achieve (various).

6.2.4 Time frames should be estimated only. Situations change. Forestry taxation may be affected later.

6.2.5 Delineate forested areas. Don’t give information about developed areas.

6.2.6 Landowner objectives in measurable terms might be thinning to 20 by 20 foot spacing and eliminating X number of tons of flammable fuels.

6.2.7 I would eliminate this section. Called for actions are beyond the scope and capability of most small landowners.

6.3 Resource categories. Here is the greatest example of harmful process. To properly address this cornucopia of information would require the following scientific and professional disciplines:

Forest biologist

Fisheries biologist

Timber cruiser

Logging engineer

Professional logger

Soils engineer

Drainage engineer

Tribal historian

Agricultural experts

Various other experts in endangered species and government policy.

Landowners familiar with the regulatory environment in King County should be wary of providing information at this level. I see many hostile red flags with regard to present policy that could limit landowner options.

I would have landowners delineate critical areas with the DNRP forester and be prepared to argue against over classification. This should happen with no more than 2 visits to the property and a hand drawn map.

6.4.1 Why does the landowner need to provide an aerial photo?

6.4.2 Site plan that is simple, hand drawn, not requiring survey work, and that only generally shows timber, topography and roads, not the fancy maps the County is used to seeing from developers.

6.4.3 Soils map should not be required for forestry permits.

6.4.4 Topography map is already included in site plan.

3. Expand activities allowed under forestry permits. Land values are defined by development allowed, and these values are not going down. Timber values are not going to compete with development values anytime soon, so policy should recognize this. People buy land to live on generally and that is not going to change, but with large lot zoning, many acres are still growing trees. Large, unaltered, unoccupied tree farms are rare. Most rural parcels in the gentrifying counties are part of estates that are lived on. After buying timber from private landowners for 35 years, I have observed over the years that people in these counties sell timber less for revenue, and more for other reasons. Most want to thin, not clear-cut. They want to open up their property to see and enjoy what they have, maybe clear for pasture or play areas, or just be able to walk around without having to beat their way through the jungle. More folks are becoming concerned by fire danger due excessive fuels that build up, or invasive weeds. There is a market and a need addressing these landowners. I call it boutique logging. I have been doing it for years. It is different from commercial logging in substantial ways. Boutique logging requires non-typical equipment and extraordinary skills to avoid damaging structures and improvements. It is expensive and usually involves small timber volumes and a lot of planning. It also usually requires activities not associated with regular logging that need to be included in these projects to make them successful. Clearing and grading for playfields is typical. Some formula to allow this should be defined.

Streamline the PBRS process.

Taxing landowners at a high rate and then giving back to some who provide public benefits is offensive. That said, it is the system we have and probably won’t change soon. Using this system to encourage forestry would work better if it were faster and easier. Currently applications are accepted through the end of the year and then opened in April. Why so long? The process should take no longer than 60 days beginning to end to be effective for forestry.

Let it be known that King County wants and would welcome a new mill.

The Weyerhaeuser mill site at Snoqualmie is perfect. It lies adjacent to 90,000 acres of commercial timberland and much of the rural forest focus areas in King County. A local manufacturing facility is badly needed for our resource to be competitive in the global market. My short list of companies to approach would begin with Sierra Pacific Industries. They recently built a new state of the art, fully enclosed sawmill, including a co-generation facility, in Skagit County. They wanted to build in Everett, but shortsighted city officials put so many permit and mitigation requirements on them that they elected to go north. They are too far away to benefit King County forestry. Other companies to talk to would include:

Seattle-Snohomish Mill Company

Manke Lumber

Portac

Hampton Lumber

Edman Company

Resume logging our National Forest and resource lands.

Moderate environmental organizations now embracing forestry should support the industry by encouraging certified logging on resource land and on the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Increasing the forest land base available for logging would almost certainly result in a new local mill. That would increase jobs, tax payments, landowner stumpage and all that goes to supporting a major industrial endeavor.

Forestry in King County is threatened by competing land values, regulatory complexity/uncertainty, endless process and lack of forestry infrastructure.

The worst result is accelerated forest conversion. If King County is truly interested in healthy forests then they need a healthy forest industry. If you want forests, you need the forest industry.

By Preston Drew