The Fight For Legacy Forests – Part One: Defining What Should Be Preserved

A battle is raging over how the DNR is managing and selling logging rights to state forest lands


NWPB reporter Lauren Gallup introduces us to her 8-part series on preserving what some call “legacy” forests / Runtime – 2:26


NWPB reporter Lauren Gallup takes an in-depth look at the battle over how the DNR manages state forests / Runtime – 10 minutes


The Opposition To Timber Sales

The first in NWPB’s series on “The Fight for Legacy Forests”

“We have a shared vision. And it is that we need to save these legacy forests, we need to become good ancestors. We need to, we need to really steward these legacies that we are now responsible for.”

That was Eirik Steinhoff, from the Legacy Forest Project, and we’ll get to him in a minute. This story is the first in an eight-part series on recent opposition to timber sales by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources.

Over the past two years or so, there’s been noticeable opposition to various timber sales on the DNR’s trust lands. DNR manages state trust lands, which in part operate to generate revenue for trust beneficiaries that were set in the state’s constitution — K-12 schools, universities, junior taxing districts — by selling some of this land for timber harvest. We’ll get more info on that in the next story in this series, but for now, let’s start with the folks who are opposing some of these sales.

At the heart of many arguments why the DNR shouldn’t be selling some of these forest lands is that people are defining them as “legacy forests.”

Now, you may be familiar with the term old-growth, forests which generally develop after 175 to 250 years under natural conditions for Douglas Fir trees, according to a US Forest Service study by, among others, old-growth legend Jerry Franklin. The DNR has a policy to not harvest old-growth, setting that date at 1850, according to Stephen Kropp of the Center for Responsible Forestry.

But legacy forests are something different. According to Kropp, they are mature forest stands that were logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and left to regenerate on their own, naturally. 

Via email earlier this year, Kropp said, “Lowland legacy forests therefore play a critical role in preserving the genetic, biological, and ecological ‘legacies’ of the natural lowland forests that once dominated Western Washington.”

They’re forests they were logged prior to World War II, after which technology made it possible to cut and mill bigger and more trees. The forests have then been allowed to regenerate naturally, and therefore they create a legacy of the older forest. 

A group in Olympia has taken the term to heart in their protests of recent timber sales — they’re calling themselves the Legacy Forest Project. 

Eirik Steinhoff, from the beginning of this story, is an adjunct faculty member at Evergreen State College and member of the Legacy Forest Project. 

Steinhoff describes the group as “the action of concerned contemporaries who are responding to a crisis strategically and collaboratively.”

So what are the ways these “concerned contemporaries” are “responding to a crisis?” Well, since roughly last October, the Legacy Forest Project members have been showing up to Board of Natural Resources meetings to give their two cents during public comment, sending letters to public lands commissioner   Hilary Franz, who heads the DNR, and board members, and creating petitions against and protesting timber sales.

Many of the group’s members live near the Capitol State Forest and they took notice in 2019 with the Hungry Hippo sale in what they call ‘their backyard’.

“We had no idea just how violent an operation that would be,” Steinhoff said. 

Folks grew concerned after learning the landscape would be treated with herbicide after the cut, as it was in the Stony Creek watershed. They worried about the downstream impacts. 

Initially, their concern was for the watershed, and they called themselves the Stony Creek Collaboratory. They met at each other’s houses, prior to COVID, and together learned more about the policies and practices of the DNR. Members of the group expressed their concerns to the department, which Steinhoff says they responded to.

Then they became aware of other sales, including the Chameleon sale, at which there was a sit-in in October 2020.

And then came the Oracle timber sale, within the Capitol State Forest in Olympia. Let’s go there now:

Bob Metzger: “I’m Bob Metzger. I’m, let’s see, background — I worked for the forest service for 35 years in fish watershed and forestry. And I’m, I’m one of the local neighbors here.” 

Lauren Gallup: “How close by do you live?” 

Bob Metzger:“Right over there.”

Lauren Gallup:“Okay. Nice.”

Bob Metzger: “Within a quarter mile of the proposed cuts.”

I went to one unit of the Oracle timber sale in early December 2021 to meet with a few members of the Legacy Forest Project.

Metzger, one of the members, explained to me that the Oracle sale has three different units.

“The first one, as you can see, is right along the road. Very close to the communities, the other two units are further back, are further away from houses,” Metzger said. 

The trips the group makes to proposed timber sales are now common, and Steinhoff says came from the desire to understand the woods better, and when COVID made gathering in close proximity unsafe. 

“We initially went into the Oracle timber sale, basically looking for, hey, are there any big trees in here that we can ask them to save not thinking, let’s put this whole thing on hold, but rather, are there trees that we’d like to have stick around,” Steinhoff said. 

On these trips they also learned of the Smuggler sale, which is adjacent to the Oracle sale. DNR rescinded that sale after the discovery that it contained five acres of old-growth — remember, it’s against DNR’s policy to harvest old-growth.

“They revoked that part of the sale and the success of that discovery of old growth and that DNR changed their mind gave us all kinds of new ideas about what are we going to do next?” Steinhoff said.

Steinhoff says they began to look at the Oracle sale, and found that some trees within it were [quote] “on their way to old-growth,” or what they define as legacy forest. 

Then Steinhoff said something that led NWPB off to further discovery, which we’ll discuss in the fourth story in this series:

“We became more informed about the fact that DNR has only more recently been mowing down these legacy forests and converting them into plantations for Douglas fir for two by fours.”

Not only then did the mission of the Legacy Forest Project change, but their interactions with the DNR also changed. Steinhoff says they became less communicative and more standoffish.

The group wrote to the DNR asking them to stop cutting these older trees, until they could point to where they were and what their plans were to meet their goal of a quota of these trees — something we’ll also get to in later stories in this series.

The group continued to become aware of more timber sales happening, such as the Crush timber sale, which NWPB reported on in November, which had similar watershed concerns to the Oracle sale.

It’s not just the Legacy Forest Project that is interested in seeing these naturally regenerated forests conserved — and therefore opposing timber sales by the DNR. 

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda: “You have the opportunity to contribute profoundly to addressing the great moral challenge facing humankind in the 21st century. That is the challenge of mitigating the climate crisis.”

Alexander Harris: “The reason I’m bringing this up to you is because the scientific literature has found that natural complex, mature unplanted forests are more resilient to these types of impacts.”

Daniel Harm: “Any county commissioners or beneficiaries of DNR’s timber extraction revenue, I encourage you to network and reach out to those in the field of the carbon market, because you can certainly bring wealth into your communities since we live in one of the most powerful bio regions in the world.”

Public comment periods during recent Board of Natural Resources meetings, where timber auctions of trust lands are approved, have been filled with folks opposed to timber sales that contain trees which they claim would have better value being conserved — perhaps even through the value of carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is, according to Britannica, “the long-term storage of carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean,” something that happens naturally in trees. 

This is all happening as the state’s supreme court decides on whether or not the DNR is interpreting part of the state constitution correctly for their land management practices. 

Part of the constitution lays out how the state would manage its public lands. Section one of article xvi begins with the sentence “All the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people…” The sentence goes on, but that first half, saying the lands must be held “for all the people,” is what’s up for debate. We’ll talk more about the case in the third story in this series, and how it could impact the DNR’s practices. 

A quick note on the legacy forests. According to the Center for Responsible Forestry there are approximately 245-thousand acres of what is considered legacy forests on land managed by the DNR in Western Washington.

Of this, Kropp explained that they estimate 80,000 acres are unprotected legacy forest, most of which is in Southwest Washington and the Puget Sound lowlands.

Members of the Legacy Forest Project, and others opposed to the sale of these forests argue they’re a small percentage of the DNR’s trust lands, and protecting them for forest conservation would not impact the revenue generation of the DNR. 

Kropp says they estimate about 15% of DNR managed trust lands in Western Washington could be defined as old-growth or legacy forests, and that about two-thirds are already protected from commercial logging.

Here’s the thing though — Angus Brodie, deputy uplands supervisor for the DNR, says legacy forest isn’t a defined term.

“The term legacy forest isn’t really a defined term. So I think what folks, when they’ve been using that have been referring to naturally regenerated sands prior to the various dates that have been presented,” Brodie said. 

The fight to protect older forests could be answered in the supreme court case, or in a series of lawsuits by the Center for Responsible Forestry against the DNR, or through the board’s own review of forest stands that predate 1900 — all of which we’ll discuss in subsequent stories in this series. 

Before we go, I’d like to end on a note from Eirik Steinhoff of the Legacy Forest Project. After the auction for the Crush Timber sale was approved in November, he and I talked about next steps. And he said he thought many folks would take a walk in these woods, just to see it one last time.

“At the very least, that means they’ll have had a chance to experience it, which if it gets cut, that’ll be over.”

I’m Lauren Gallup, join us next time for the next story in this series, to understand why and how the DNR manages land for timber harvest.