Environmental Analysis too long to print

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Last summer I wrote an article for AFRC’s blog regarding the status of Environmental Analyses (EA’s) being completed on the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when conducting vegetation management projects, including timber harvest, on their lands.  At the time, I highlighted a 418-page EA and described it as a “mammoth” document.  That description seemed fitting considering that the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) described in its 2007 publication A Citizens Guide to NEPA that The environmental assessment (EA) is intended to be a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis.  418 pages seemed excessive and a far cry from “concise” and at the time was the longest EA published by the BLM for a vegetation management project that I had reviewed.  Of course, there is no limit to excess, a rule that I was reminded of this month following the BLM’s publication of a 460-page EA titled “Pickett West”.  Now I’m faced with finding an adjective more extreme than mammoth.  I briefly flirted with the idea of labeling the Pickett West document as “mammoth”, but after placing a phone call into the Medford BLM office I was provided with a more apt description.

Typically, the BLM will provide printed hard-copies of any NEPA document they publish.  Knowing this, I called the Grants Pass Field Office to request a hard-copy of the 460-page Pickett West EA.  The response I received was at first funny and bit surreal, but later simply depressing.  The BLM informed me that they would not be providing the public with hard-copies of the Pickett West EA because it is “too long to print”.  That’s correct, the BLM has officially prepared an EA that is either too costly or too time consuming for them to print on paper.  That’s when I halted my search for a single adjective worthy to represent the Pickett West EA.  If 2016 was the year of mammoth EA’s then 2017 is officially the year of “EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print”.

I can’t say that I’m shocked by where we’re at.  The digression of the BLM into the world of EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print was bound to happen.  This is an agency that constantly hears accusations that their EA’s are “insufficient” in scope and in content by opponents of timber management, regardless of how long they are (If you don’t believe me, call the Medford BLM office and request copies of the 170-pages of formal protests they received last year for all their hard work publishing over 1,500 pages of environmental analysis).  So, if a 300-page EA is insufficient, and a 418-page EA is insufficient, then I’m guessing that a 460-page EA will also be seen as insufficient.  The only relevant question now is what will 2018 bring?  The optimist in me likes to think that it will be the year that the Medford BLM District ignores the absurd claims that their Russian-novelesque EA’s are insufficient, and publishes an EA that is a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis (where have I heard that description before…).  But the pessimist in me suspects that I’ll be searching for a new word to describe whatever type of document gets published by the BLM next June.


The U.S. Forest Service and the "T" Word

As AFRC’s field forester in western Oregon I am responsible for reviewing vegetation management projects with a timber harvest component across four national forests.  All four of these Forests provide some level of timber products every year as a component of these projects.  I stress the word ‘component’ here as these are integrated projects, meaning that their objectives are numerous and diverse.  A garden-variety project may aim to improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation opportunities, and provide timber products.  A good project strives to strike a balance of these diverse objectives and offer up a sort of symbiotic relationship amongst them.  Naturally, the first step in achieving this symbiosis is to identify and acknowledge the various objectives.  For many years, the Forest Service took this first step in a straightforward and tacit manner: they knew what their objectives were and they listed them in no particular order.  Over the past few years I have noticed a change.  The change is simple: the omission of timber as an explicit objective alongside the other objectives.  Timber products are still being provided on these projects, they’re just not being acknowledged in the blueprints.  It’s almost as though the Forest Service is a bit ashamed of harvesting and selling logs.

Faced with this trending practice of veiling timber harvest from small-scale projects, I decided to turn to the forum where the agency is most visible and accessible at the large-scale: their website.  This is where most people would go if they were interested in what the Forest Service does and what its mission is.  Sure enough, the agency’s mission is identified clearly on the web:  The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.  Like most mission statements, this one is a bit abstract.  What are these “needs” that our generation gets from our forests?  Fast-forwarding past my trudge through the agency’s webpage I came to the conclusion that our generation apparently does not need wood products; at least not according to the Forest Service, otherwise I would have been able to locate the word “wood” or “timber” somewhere on their website.  I read about other resources: air, water, soil, recreation, wildlife, etc.  In this regard, the Forest Service’s website mirrors those vegetation management projects that I review in western Oregon.  By that I mean they provide wood products to the American public, they just don’t like to boast about it.

I suppose in an age where it seems that image is everything and substance is an afterthought, the Forest Service’s policy of hiding the fact that they permit the cutting of trees to provide wood products to the American public shouldn’t come as a shock.  Although it does to me.  Why not take pride in the fact that they are providing a renewable resource that every member of the public uses every day?  Why not take pride in the fact that this provision comes via integrated projects that achieve a swath of other resource objectives?  These are loaded questions of course.  I’m not that naïve.  The cutting down of trees, regardless of the reason, makes most people at worst distraught and at best a bit uncomfortable.  This is fine.  What isn’t fine is that the lead government agency tasked with providing the nation with all of its needs from our national forests seems to be tailoring it’s messaging to assuage these sentiments rather than tailoring it to reflect what the nation’s needs actually are.  In other words, their website, and the messaging it contains, seems to be handling the public with kids gloves.  Not only is this approach disingenuous, and a bit insulting to their audience, but it’s also leading down a questionable path.  If the Forest Service treats their timber products resource with such shame, why shouldn’t the rest of the American public? -Andy Geissler


The Worst Type of Government Waste

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance is typically the most costly part of implementing any type of vegetation management project on federally managed land.  Documents exceeding 200 pages are commonplace to comply with NEPA.  In 2015 the Roseburg District of the Bureau of Land Management completed one such analysis called Olalla-Camus.  This analysis focused on treatments designed to fulfil the BLM’s O&C mandate to provide a sustained production of timber on lands allocated for such production as directed by their 1994 Resource Management Plan.  Like all NEPA documents completed by federal agencies attempting to conduct active forest management and timber harvest, Olalla-Camus included an in-depth analysis on everything from wildlife habitat to carbon storage and beyond.  The timber sales analyzed under this document were estimated to provide about 16 MMBF of timber.

Next month the BLM will be offering the only timber sale generated off the Olalla-Camus EA for a total of 6.7 MMBF.  The remaining 10 MMBF considered in this EA will never be implemented.  This is due to the BLM’s new management plan completed in 2016, inconveniently finalized between the publication of the Olalla-Camus EA and the planned implementation of the treatments it considered.  Like the 1994 RMP, the 2016 RMP set aside many acres where sustained timber production cannot occur.  The only difference is that these “set-aside” acres grew exponentially.  Part of this “growth” includes the majority of the land included in the Olalla-Camus EA.  The BLM could have included a “grandfather clause” that would allow projects conceived and analyzed under the old management plan to move forward, but they didn’t.  The unfortunate result is the worst type of government waste-investments consuming large sums of money and time being squandered. -Andy Geissler


Forest Service Roads: Why We Need a New Road Maintenance Model

I was in the middle of writing this piece when Russ Vaagen posted “Roads are not the Enemy” on his blog, theforestblog.com. At first I thought about scraping my article but after reading his, I think the two pieces are complementary to each other. Mine is from the perspective of a forest engineer who has spent most of my career dealing with forest roads, both new construction and maintenance. Nearly all this work was on private and state trust lands in Washington State. I think this provides a unique perspective on the forest road issue, especially on U.S. Forest Service lands.

If you look around much of the road infrastructure – road surfacing, culverts, bridges, etc. of federal forests are crumbling away, much as we see across the federal highway system. For the most part this is not due to a lack of will or desire on the part of the hard-working field level staff of the Forest Service. Really, it is mostly due to the significant underfunding of road maintenance needs nationally on the Forest Service road system. This lack of maintenance of key infrastructure, admittedly primarily built for timber but providing access now for a broad range of users, has and continues to have negative impacts on access and the environment. Failed culverts, washed out roads, plugged ditches, and aging culverts and bridges are just a few examples of the type of issues impacting water resources or limiting access. Often cutting off recreational and economic opportunities in the forest.

matt2

What can we do about this?

Many people look at the success of the Washington State Forest Practices Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plan (RMAP) process and wonder if it can be applied elsewhere. Perhaps even on the National Forest? According to a Washington Forest Protection Association 2015 report, private forest landowners and state lands (mostly DNR Trust Lands) have spent over $300 million dollars since the year 2001 in Washington state, “resulting in removal or repair of more than 5,600 barriers to fish migration, which has restored nearly 3,900 miles of historic fish habitat.” While this figure primarily captures the investment in fish passage, there is another monetary metric that was not well captured in how DNR collects data.

That metric is non-fish passage road maintenance work, such as adding or installing larger cross drain culverts, road surfacing upgrades, and road abandonment. Additionally, there is the routine maintenance, not tracked through the RMAP program. Ongoing road grading work, culvert and ditchline cleaning, and road side vegetation management. All work to maintain a transportation system not only for regulatory reasons but also operational reasons.

As an engineer, I have spent much of my career identifying, designing, and complying this type of work. I have lost track of the number of truckloads of culverts I have overseen the installation of, but it is a substantial number. Private landowners and DNR trust lands have and are investing millions of dollars into the ongoing maintenance and upgrades of their transportation systems. This benefits, water quality, provides economic benefit from the work, and in many cases, enhances recreational access.

Is this a potential model for Forest Service transportation systems?

Ultimately, yes! A similar model on Forest Service lands can be developed, but some hurdles need to be overcome. Roads are such a contentious issue, especially on the National Forests. Can interest groups with such diverse opinions, those that want to keep every road and those who would like to see significantly less if not all roads obliterated come together on common ground? Some roads may need to go away, but conversely there may need to be new permanent road constructed to maintain access needs. Relocating roads out of flood plains or similar areas to higher ground are one example of the need to build new road while eliminating some existing road. Can agreement be reached?

Funding is the major road block to getting work done. Some Forests are using Stewardship dollars to conduct restoration level road maintenance, but this does not meet the overall need. Private and state trust lands harvested trees to pay for much of the RMAP work they conducted. A similar program can be used on Forest Service grounds, while still meeting ecological goals and within the confines of federal land management regulations. But it will require increasing “pace and scale” while also seeing congress add more funds to the Forest Service budget to accomplish this work.

In the end a new model needs to be built for the Forest Service because it is the right thing to do for many stakeholder interests. The RMAP program grew out of the Washington State Forest Practices Forest and Fish HCP. It was an effort to balance the needs of water quality and fish habitat with a viable and sustainable forest products industry. An effort that to date appears to be very successful on state and private forest land ownership.

On Forest Service lands this work would not only benefit access needs for recreation and vegetation management but also water quality and fish habitat. A successful program would enhance the environment while helping to maintain and enhance the economic infrastructure of road maintenance, logging, and milling. This could go a long way in working to create family wage jobs in rural communities.  – Matt Comisky


Reconciling Forest Needs in SW Oregon

Managing forest stands to put them on a trajectory that will increase their resiliency to wildfire, insect & disease, and climate change seems to be at the forefront of both the Forest Service’s (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) priorities over the past few years.  This concept is often characterized as “forest restoration” by both agencies.  The importance and validity of this priority is illustrated well in the current state of the federal forests of southwest Oregon.  A century of fire suppression in the region has resulted in a level of fuel accumulation that puts these forests at the risk of wildfires that would burn at unnatural levels of intensity.  The remedy to these issues is simple but often controversial: removing the in-growth; essentially cutting and removing the trees that have grown due to a century of fire suppression.  In fact, a paper titled A new approach to evaluate forest structure restoration needs across Oregon and Washington, USA published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2014 by the Nature Conservancy and others, describes these conditions and remedies for southwest Oregon.  Here, the authors describe much of the lands in southwest Oregon as having “moderate to high active restoration needs”.  The authors of this paper determined that these “forest restoration needs were dominated by the need for thinning” and that “disturbance alone cannot restore forest structure”.

The nice thing about such a remedy is that it addresses multiple resource objectives.  It restores forest stands to a more resilient condition while also providing timber products to the local industry.  Unfortunately, these types of forest treatments are often unimplementable.  The obstacles appear to be the management plans and regulatory guidance that direct the actions of the very agencies (USFS & BLM) that aim to prioritize such treatments.

In a recent environmental assessment published by the Medford BLM district the agency stated:  due to competing management objectives, some stands proposed for treatment (approximately 23% of the proposed treatment acres) would not meet the long-term objectives of shifting the trajectory of stands to more optimal growth and resiliency.  How is it that the objectives of the management plan of an agency whose priority is to increase forest resiliency conflict with actions that would increase forest resiliency?

One of these objectives is the recovery of the northern spotted owl (NSO), which is a species listed as threatened under the endangered species act.  BLM vegetation management projects, and subsequent timber sales, must always consider the effects of said project to the NSO and its habitat.  These effects are often measured by the level of forest canopy retained after any vegetation management is applied due to the NSO’s need for some closed canopy conditions.  However, in southwest Oregon where current closed canopies are unnaturally high due to the aforementioned fire suppression, the presumed habitat needs of the NSO conflict with the treatments necessary to meet the needs of forest resiliency.  The same environmental assessment referenced above goes on to state: retaining canopy cover in select stands would not allow for forest health objectives to be met. 

A rational mind would think that a native species of fauna would thrive in a setting composed of native levels of flora.  In other words, if the “natural” condition of forested stands in southwest Oregon is one of lower forest canopy density, shouldn’t those species of wildlife dependent on them thrive under such conditions?  The answer, according to vegetation management projects like the one referenced above, seems to be no.  Reconciliation of this strange relationship would be a neat trick. -Andy Geissler


You Can’t Thin Forever

Since the inception of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Western Oregon have limited their timber management paradigm to one of nearly exclusive thinning of young forest stands where post-harvest residual closed forest canopies make regeneration of Douglas-fir impossible.  This is an ecological truth: Douglas-fir seedlings need at least partial, but preferably full sunlight to grow and thrive.  AFRC has often clamored regarding the near-sighted nature of this management regime and questioned its long-term sustainability.  In recent months some federal agencies have come to terms with the same truth that AFRC and most foresters who practice their trade in the Pacific Northwest know well: you can’t thin forever.

The Salem BLM District recently published an environmental assessment that considered just how long they could manage their timber resources with a young stand thinning-only approach.  The results were disturbing but not surprising.  The EA, dated April, 2016 read: At the current rate of harvest it is likely the Salem District will exhaust most commercial thinning options in 40-80-year-old stands in a little over a decade.  In other words, the BLM timber program as we have come to know it, will expire in ten years on the Cascades Resource Area without a major shift in management practices.  And really, this timeline is likely pretty similar on other BLM Resource Areas, give or take five years.

I for one was elated when I read this.  It’s a gloomy outlook, but at least it’s realistic.  It’s akin to the longtime addict finally accepting that they are indeed an addict: Until the BLM overcomes the state of denial and accepts that their past twenty-year thinning-only regime is ultimately unsustainable then the likelihood of altering the trend is grim.  It appears that the Cascades Resource Area is on the path to recovery.  Perhaps an intervention is warranted for other Resource Area’s, or the Forest Service for that matter.  –Andy Geissler            


Is the BLM Over Cutting?

It is often said that the BLM is not managing their lands sustainably and they are “over-cutting”.  Elsewhere in this blog we have explained how one determines the amount of timber that can be sustained over time.  Using those concepts, is the BLM overcutting?  The answer is, it depends.  It depends on if the BLM is managing its land consistent with the assumptions made in doing the sustained yield calculation.

For example, if the sustained yield calculation was based on managing 2 million acres and was one billion board feet per year and for various reasons the BLM felt it could only manage 1.5 million acres and they still were selling one billion board feet then, yes, they would be overcutting IF all 2 million acres were established and maintained under the same assumptions as were made when doing the sustained yield calculation.  If on the other hand, the 1.5 million acres contained a higher volume than the managed stand used in the sustained yield calculation, they would not be overcutting and could maintain a sale level of one billion board feet until that excess inventory was gone.  Are you confused yet?

Let’s use an example.  Using the process described in the previous blog, the BLM calculates that the average acre within the one billion board foot sustained yield calculation was based on growing a 21” tree in 60 years for an average volume per acre of 40,000 bf.  If the 2 million acres within their land base consisted entirely of stands under 60 years old and were being managed in a manner that their volume per acre at 60 years was 40,000 bf, then if they continued to harvest one billion board feet per year when their land base was reduced by 25% then they would be overcutting.  If the land base is reduced by 25%, the sustained yield would go down 25% to 750,000 bf if the potential of all acres is identical.

Now let’s assume that the 1.5 million acres the BLM is left with after removing 25% from the land base contained stands that were older than 60 and contained 80,000 bf/ac.  This is way more than what is expected under the sustained yield scenario.  In this case, every acre cut contains twice the volume of a sustained yield acre.  The BLM would not be overcutting if they maintained a harvest of one billion board feet.  They could actually harvest 1.5 billion BF for 60 years from those 1.5 million acres at which time they would have to reduce their harvest to 750,000 bf which is what the managed stands can sustain over time.

Another instance where they could harvest above their sustained yield level is if they aren’t managing their lands using the land management practices that were assumed to be used when doing the sustained yield calculation.  For instance, they might not plant areas with the same genetic characteristic, might not apply fertilizer, might not control stocking or might not regenerate and plant new trees as assumed in the sustained yield calculation.  Under these conditions, the lands would not be growing as anticipated and they could be over cutting.

The industry is worried that this might be the case as the BLM has not followed the management practices that were assumed when they did their sustained yield calculation 20 years ago.  Since the NWFP was adopted, the BLM has not regenerated and planted new trees as anticipated but rather relied on thinning existing stands to produce their ASQ.  While this has increased the standing inventory beyond what was anticipated, it has created a 20 year age gap that will affect future sustained yield calculations.

The BLM has never “over-cut” their lands as the vast majority of their stands contain way more volume than the sustained yield acre as in the example above.  Claims that they are doing so are merely attempts to discredit the agency and deceive the general public and have no basis in reality. -Ross Mickey


The Principles of Sustained Yield

The lands (and the trees that grow on them) managed by the USFS and BLM are governed by numerous laws that require these lands to be managed sustainably.  The O&C Act, which governs the management of over 2 million acres of federally owned forestland in western Oregon, is very specific on this point.  It states that the O&C lands “shall be managed . . . for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply”.  So what is the “principle of sustained yield”?

In its simplest form, this means that the federal agencies cannot cut more trees than it can grow.  The next question is how one knows that they are doing this?  That’s complicated.  It is done by collecting reams of field data which are compiled and feed into computer models developed by teams of PhD’s from a wide range of specialties.  Understanding the interplay between all of these biological, social and technical factors form the basis of Forestry Programs developed by our major universities.  Short of that, I will give you my synopsis of a Sustained Yield 101 course.  I will start by assuming that I own ten acres of land and want to grow Christmas trees to supplement my income.  These same principle apply to growing trees to produce building materials.

To determine my “sustained yield” of Christmas trees, the first thing I need to know is the productivity of the soil.  My ten acres consists of one acre of really good soil, eight acres of OK soil and one acre of rather poor soil.  The next thing I need to know is how long it will take to grow the size of Christmas tree I want to sell.  To determine this I need to know the characteristics of the trees I am going to plant (genetics), what supplements I might add to the soil (fertilizers), what management practices I will employ as the trees grow (thinning, weed control, etc.) and how big of a tree I want to grow. I then combine the soil productivity and the tree data to find out how long it will take to grow the size of tree I want and how many trees per acre I can expect to have.

Doing this I find that I can grow 1,500, six foot trees in five years on my one acre of really good soil, 1,250 trees on my OK soil and 750 trees on my poor soil.

I decide to start small and just plant my one acre of good soil.  What is my sustained yield?  Well it is 1,500 trees every five years.  Most of the time, sustained yield is displayed on an annual basis and is referred to as the Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ).  This is because our federal forestland is also managed under another forestry principle which is called “non-decline, even flow management”.  What this does is ensure that the communities and businesses that rely on a predictable, constant supply of timber will not be hurt by huge swings in the amount of timber being sold every year.  On our case, it means that instead of selling 1,500 trees every five years we would sell 300 trees every year. (1,500 divided by five years)  Our ASQ would then be 300 trees.

What would happen if I wanted to plant all ten acres?  I could grow 1,500/acre on one acre, 1,250 /acre on eight acres and 750/acre on one acre.  Doing the math, this pencils out to 12,250 trees every five years or an ASQ of 2,450 trees.  In order for this to truly be sustainable, 300 trees would come off the one good soil acre, 2,000 from my eight OK soil acres and 150 from my one acre of poor soil.  I would also have to immediately replant the acres that I cut.  Planting baby trees is the heart of sustained yield management.

As you can see, calculating the sustained yield combines many factors and is based on the assumption that you start with bare land.  What happens to the sustained yield when you start with land that already has trees on them? The answer is…nothing.  Sustained yield is calculated on the potential growth based on the myriad of factors mentioned above.  What existing trees do determine is when you can start selling at the sustained yield level.  In our Christmas tree example, we can’t start until five years from now.  When our federal agencies ask the same question, they look at the size of the inventory that they start with and determine if it can be metered out at the sustained yield level.  If not, they must lower their ASQ until such time as the inventory is sufficient to maintain the sustained yield level.  If the inventory is very high, they could actually sell more than their sustained yield level for a period of time but the principle of non-decline, even flow prohibits this.  -Ross Mickey


Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 3

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

What can we do about it?

In part 2 we covered some of the reasons you should care about the TLT program. In part 3 we will identify some ways to address the issue. While well intentioned, this program is broken and needs a tune up. Much like a new car off the lot, TLT was a shiny new program that worked at the time. Many miles later, it needs new tires, brakes, and transmission work to carry it over the future miles it must travel. The agency does need a mechanism to reposition underperforming assets just as any other trust manager would consider. But this system needs to be reformed for the benefit of the beneficiaries both today and tomorrow. But what can we do about it?

img_0951

In the near term, there are several different ways to work on effecting change to this program, but all require engagement. Just at different levels and with different groups that can help to create change. Either individually or as a group (PTA, School Board, etc.,) get involved with the Advocates for School Trust Lands (formerly CLASS) or the Washington State School Directors Trust Land Task Force. These are the primary groups engaged on many of these issues. Look for other groups advocating for the sustainable maximum management of DNR trust lands, such as your local beneficiary tax district. Talk to your legislative representatives. Tell them your concerns over specific parcels or the program. Comment to the Board of Natural Resources on the topic or when transfer parcels come up for approval by the Board. And express your concerns to DNR staff and the Commissioner of Public Lands throughout the process. Ask for more transparency. Advocate for a broader picture of the immediate, future, and unintended consequences of transfer of the proposed parcels. All before the decision is made by the legislature.

Soon AFRC hopes to bring forward some concepts and ideas to tune up the program. Concepts to protect the corpus of the trust, protect future generations while providing for the current, and to allow the trust manager, DNR, the needed ability to reposition assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Why do we care? Because without the vibrant customer base our members provide, the value of the trust asset is greatly reduced. The reduction in harvest volumes due to decreases in available acres means potential curtailments or shuttering of customer milling facilities. Which means a reduction or loss of customers who competitively bid on timber sales. This ultimately is not good for our members or the communities our members and their employees live, work and play in. Nor does it support the beneficiaries; schools, libraries, fire districts, etc. today or in the future. Maintaining the maximum working forest land base in Washington is good for today’s generation and tomorrow’s.


Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 2

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

Why Should You Care About the TLT Program?

In part one we covered the basics and overview of the TLT program. In part 2 I am going to address the second question; Why should you care?

The answer; quite honestly the primary reason you should care about TLT is that it continues to erode the corpus (body) of the trust assets for near term gain at the potential detriment of future generations. So not only is the corpus of the trust eroded but the intergenerational equities (benefiting one generation over another) issue is also at play. But these are just the primary reason, there are many others, some broad and some finely nuanced, including the undivided loyalty concern.

What do I mean by erode the corpus of the trust? The corpus or body of the trust in this context is primarily timberlands managed by DNR. Under this program, the acres within the Common School trust are decreased through transfer or inter-trust exchanges. While providing the expectation of the agency buying replacement lands. In June of 2013 the DNR reported in its 2013-2015 Biennium TLT proposal document, there had been a disposal of 113,280 acres and only a purchase of 49,683 acres. This is a 66,772-acre loss of trust lands, mostly timber lands, from the TLT program alone. A decrease that is roughly 1.5 times greater an area than the City of Tacoma. This means that under DNR’s fiduciary obligation of inter-generational equities, today’s generation has been compensated but tomorrows generation may or may not be compensated through trust revenues. Especially in the current situation where the deficit of acquired lands is so large. While we are aware of some small acreage purchases since the 2013 report, we are working with DNR to learn what the current actual shortfall of replacement lands is. Reports published since the 2013-15 report have not included the totals for disposal and acquisitions under this program. It is our belief that the acquisition of lands still lags far behind the continued disposal, eroding the corpus of the trust.

img_0935

The other nuance to this erosion issue is the inter-trust exchange process. I know this is going to be a bit dense in information but it is critical to understand this aspect of the process. Since Common School trust lands are the only ones which can be removed from trust status, other than County Trust lands re-conveyed to a county for park uses, TLT parcels which are not already Common School trust lands must be exchanged for similar value Common School parcels. For example, a 120-acre parcel of County Trust lands (State Forest Transfer lands) with high value timber is identified for TLT transfer. In order to accomplish this transfer, the 120 acres must be exchanged for Common School trust lands of the same value and preferably in the same rough geographical location. Often the Common School trust lands have younger trees growing on it. This means it takes more acres to create the same value. So the swap may equate to more like 120 acres in exchange for 250 acres of younger growth trees. While the dollar amount is the same, the county lands increase by 130 acres and the Common School decreases by 250 acres. The Common School trust gives up 250 acres in exchange for 120 acres that are then immediately transferred out of trust management. See the table below for the flow of acres.

Flow of Acres in an Inter-trust exchange followed by TLT disposition.
120 Acres of County Trust desired for TLT program with 85 year old trees 250 Acres of Common School Trust needed for equal value with 15 year old trees
Transfer 120 acres to Common School Transfer 250 acres to County Trust
Receive 250 acres from Common School Receive 120 acres from County Trust
Keep 250 acres Dispose of 120 acres to TLT (deposit to Common School Construction account and Real Property Replacement account per percentages)
Net gain of 250 acres in County Trust Net loss of 250 acres from Common School

 

This has impacts on both current and future generations. Also since most of DNR’s planning efforts are based on managed acres, this has varied impacts on individual trusts and ultimately the number of acres available for sustainably managed timber harvest. This process raises concerns over inter-generational equities, undivided loyalty, and preserving the corpus of the trust.

Additionally, there are concerns over the process the TLT program takes in approving the parcel list that is submitted to the legislature. Ultimately there is not an open public process which allows for public input and engagement on the program from a broad perspective. While it is true the agency sometimes holds local community education meetings for specific parcels, there is no opportunity to look at the big picture impacts to the trust and the beneficiaries. Because the complete appraisals are not conducted until after the legislature approves the list, it is not possible to fully understand some of the negative impacts. This is especially true with the inter-trust exchange aspect as those exchange acres are identified later in the process.

There is also controversy over the role the Board of Natural Resources plays in the approval of the list. While the Board has the general power to “[e]stablish policies to ensure that the acquisition, management, and disposition of all lands and resources within [DNR’s] jurisdiction are based on sound principles designed to achieve the maximum effective development and use of such lands and resources…” RCW 43.30.215(2). The Board prior to approval by the legislature only has informational briefings on the proposal. As described in DNR’s own documents the information is “…assembled into an informational package that is presented to the Board of Natural Resources and then to the Governor’s Office for submission to the Legislature.” The Board does not weigh in on the policy, documentation, appraisals, impacts to the trust or other issues of concern related to the TLT proposed package. No discussion. No in depth review. No vote. No Board Resolution. Usually just a head nod and DNR staff proceed. A transfer parcel list developed by DNR staff, appraised by DNR staff, and ultimately disposed of after funding from the legislature by DNR staff, with little to no input from the beneficiaries or the Board other than a rubber stamp of approval of one transaction at a time.

These are just a few of the reasons why you should care about this program. Ultimately the concerns over fiduciary obligation, intergenerational equities, and undivided loyalty, play heavily into the impacts to the trusts both for today’s generation and tomorrows. And I did not even cover the lost revenue when these parcels are no longer managed. In part 3 we will explore what we can do about it.