Court halts DNR timber sales in Jefferson County

Environmental groups praise ruling, say it will change process

PORT TOWNSEND — A Jefferson County Superior Court judge has ruled against the state Department of Natural Resources in a case plaintiffs say will have broad implications for how the agency manages its forests.

Superior Court Judge Keith Harper ruled Wednesday in favor of plaintiffs Center for Sustainable Economy and Save the Olympic Peninsula who argued Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had violated the state Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider the impacts of climate change from two timber sales in the county.

“This ruling will help turn things around by requiring DNR to report greenhouse gas emissions associated with logging and evaluate the extent to which clearcutting is making the land hotter, drier, and more susceptible to wildfires,” said John Talberth, president of CSE, in a statement.

According to CSE’s initial complaint, in early 2022, the state Board of Natural Resources authorized two timber sales in Jefferson County amounting to 319 acres of public land for timber harvest.

In a Determination of Non-Significance, the department said “at this time, the SEPA Environmental Checklist does not include analysis of climate impacts. The topic of climate impacts is an evolving issue as new science emerges and agencies work to include that new science in their work.”

The review said state regulations likely would be updated once the state Department of Ecology drafts more meaningful criteria for assessing climate change in the SEPA process.

DNR Acting Deputy Supervisor for State Uplands Duane Emmons said in an email that the department did not overlook the impacts of timber harvest on the environment and said recent studies have shown the state carbon sequestration program accommodates for the carbon released by timber harvests.

“Our SEPA checklist for the timber sales being challenged did not incorporate that scientific work,” Emmons said, referring to the sequestration data. “Therefore the court invalidated the SEPA checklist and directed DNR to redo its analysis.”

Emmons said DNR will evaluate the court’s ruling and revise its SEPA documentation for the timber sales, “making sure we fully incorporate the work our scientists have conducted over the years related to carbon and climate change.”

However, CSE was able to argue that disclosure of environmental impacts was required in the SEPA process and that the two timber sales required more recent environmental impact statements than those DNR had cited.

“DNR did not take a searching, realistic look at the potential hazards and, with reasoned thought and analysis, candidly and methodically addressed those concerns,” CSE argued. “DNR did not conduct its analysis with up-to-date information that accurately reflects the climate-related impacts of the Projects.”

A written decision for the case is still being drafted, but Harper ruled in favor of the petitioners Wednesday, according to Jefferson County Deputy Clerk Siri Johnson.

The ruling not only halted the two planned timber harvests, but plaintiffs in the case say the ruling will have significant impacts on how DNR manages its forests.

“This decision is going to force a big change in how DNR operates,” said Ron Richards, chair of Save the Olympic Peninsula, one of the litigants. “They’re going to have to think before they cut, which they haven’t been doing that at the county level.”

Richards — a Clallam County resident and former county commissioner — said with the new ruling, DNR would have to look at alternative ways of managing public lands other than timber harvests.

Timber harvests release a large amount of carbon, Richards said, and leave cleared land more prone to heating from the sun, leading to drier conditions and wildfires.

“Logging is the No. 1 emitter of carbon in Jefferson County,” Richards said, referring to a 2020 inventory of greenhouse gases in the county. “If you don’t log, there’s a real positive effect in combating climate change.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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