The Washington State Board of Natural Resources has a vexing, yet exciting opportunity to establish policies for the management of our state's forest trust lands in the 21st Century. Guided by environmentally and economically sustainable forestry policies, the state's forest trust lands can meet the needs of society today and for future generations. Following release of the "Draft EIS for Alternatives for Sustainable Forest Management of State Trust Lands in Western Washington" in mid-November, citizens had an opportunity to comment through the public review process. The Board must now choose one of six proposed alternatives, or develop a variation for final approval.
The six Draft EIS alternatives follow a land use zoning approach originally defined to implement the 1997 Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) while simultaneously satisfying state forest practice regulations. Zones are designated for streamside areas, upland areas, unstable slope areas and old growth habitat areas where special forestry treatments such as regeneration harvests, thinning and levels of habitat protection are prescribed. The Board has chosen to continue this zoned approach to stay within the bounds of the HCP, although it is highly likely that a less constrained unzoned approach would lead to better future ecological conditions and economic performance.
The vexation enters because various constituents feel that their particular interests are best served by a single alternative, whereas the Board views each alternative as having promising endpoints, but perhaps not offering an optimal balance of environmental and economic values. The Board recognizes that, unlike federal or private forests, Washington state forests are trust assets - to be perpetually managed for the benefit of designated beneficiaries, such as schools and universities. So long as all applicable federal and state laws are satisfied, case law holds that fiduciary responsibilities are paramount no matter how laudatory other state goals may be. We must fashion an alternative that satisfies this complex set of needs.
Our state forest trust assets are valued at over $3 billion. The Board must adopt policies to actively manage these lands, minimizing long-term risks and using the most current scientific principles of resource management. We want to explore new ways to capture forest benefits for trust beneficiaries and ensure flexibility to adapt to changing future circumstances. For example, mitigation of the effects of global climate change through carbon sequestration in carefully managed forests might produce new sources of revenue for trust beneficiaries.
We need to establish policies that help resource managers adapt to new information to ensure that both environmental values and asset values of the trusts are being constantly examined and protected. Returns on investment must be clearly predicted from each alternative, so that the public sees the potential value to schools, universities and county governments from its investment. Each year, the managers should monitor and report both on how well fiduciary responsibilities and environmental values are protected.
Resource professionals don't always get it right - witness the unforeseen effects of 100 years of fire protection policies on forest health (eastside) and biodiversity (westside). Locking into a rigid management system or adopting shortsighted policies that do not recognize the uncertainties inherent in managing complex natural resource systems is short sighted and foolish. The Board must enact policies that allow flexibility for future professional managers to assimilate new scientific discoveries and societal demands. For example, areas of exceptional scientific or social value such as unique areas of natural old growth habitat or lands of other biological or cultural significance can be set aside - as long as the trusts are properly compensated.
The challenge is to focus on the future by implementing the best management alternatives for the forest environment while keeping the investment interests of the trusts as our legal beacon. As any investment manager knows, when all is said and done, our legal duty is to the person who places his or her investments in our care. The Draft EIS needs to better demonstrate how investments will grow and prosper so that future generations enjoy the benefits they deserve.
Dean and Member, Board of Natural Resources