PORT ANGELES — More than 1,000 acres of state Department of Natural Resources land in Clallam and Jefferson counties have been moved into conservation status, including part of the controversial Power Plant sale near Port Angeles.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz announced Monday that 2,000 acres of structurally complex forestland across five counties will be moved into conservation, funded by the state’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions.
Jefferson County has the most land being moved into conservation, with about 950 acres preserved in two sites. The largest is the 670 acres around Dabob Bay announced last month, and another 280 acres near Mount Walker also will be set aside.
In Clallam County, only a 69-acre tract of forest lands within the Elwha River watershed will be placed into conservation, land that was previously part of the controversial “Power Plant” timber sale, which covered 126 acres seven miles west of Port Angeles and was canceled.
In June, environmental groups the Earth Law Center, Center for Whale Research and the Keystone Species Alliance brought a suit against DNR for failing to sufficiently consider the impacts of the timber sale on the Elwha watershed.
The lands being placed into conservation are the acres that opponents said most directly threaten the watershed. The remaining acres are still available for sale, but they must go through a new environmental review process before they can be sold.
Port Angeles Mayor Kate Dexter and City Manager Nathan West sent letters to DNR in June and August stating opposition to the sale and asking for other options to be considered.
The August letter was also signed by city council members, state lawmakers and other local leaders.
Over the summer and as recently as November, a Clallam County district judge struck down attempts to stop the sale.
In September, DNR spokesperson Kenny Ocker said the department had no plans to cancel the sale and that doing so without a court order could make the state liable to breach-of-contract lawsuits from the purchaser or beneficiaries.
But on Tuesday, Franz told Peninsula Daily News at the time DNR was still identifying lands that could be moved into conservation status.
“After going through the criteria, we saw that this 69 acres fits right into that and therefore we were able to meet the multiple needs of the community,” Franz said.
Franz said the money allocated by the Legislature will allow DNR to purchase working forest lands that will replace the acres moved into conservation.
“We got to have both lands,” Franz said. “We got to help support and protect critical forests and we got to support the rural communities by being able to now acquire the working forest lands.”
Franz said the purchaser of the sale — Eugene, Ore.-based Murphy Company — was informed of the sale and understood the decision. Representatives for Murphy did not immediately return a request for comment.
In a statement, Earth Law Center Director of Legal Advocacy Elizabeth Dunne said she was “ecstatic” the sale was canceled.
“Many said it wasn’t possible to get the Power Plant sale canceled and protect this stretch of forest near the banks of the Elwha River, but we did it,” Dunne said. “This is a first step toward greater protections for critical and mature forests in the Elwha Watershed.”
Peter Bahls, executive director of the Northwest Watershed Institute in Port Townsend, thanked Franz for expanding the Dabob Bay Natural Area.
“I’m grateful that Commissioner Franz is listening to the Jefferson County Commissioners, shellfish growers, tribes, regional and state conservation groups, and area residents that have been urging DNR to expand the Dabob Bay Natural Area and protect the unique older forests around Dabob Bay,” Bahls said.
Hundreds of acres were also moved into conservation status in King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.
The expansions are being funded by money from the Climate Commitment Act, which takes funds from the state’s carbon emissions cap-and-trade program and uses it to buy forest lands for conservation while also purchasing additional working forest land for harvest.
DNR also used funds from the Climate Commitment Act to purchase 9,000 acres of working forest lands in Wahkiakum County, the revenue from which will go to the junior taxing districts and other beneficiaries of state-managed lands.
Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson said he was concerned about how the move on the North Olympic Peninsula would impact beneficiaries of DNR timber sales, namely school and fire districts.
Replacement lands have been purchased, Johnson said, but when junior taxing districts would receive funding isn’t clear.
“That money will eventually come back to the school system, but it’s a big difference in time,” Johnson said. “It could be an issue.”
County commissioners must approve of the transfers before the move can be completed. Otherwise the lands stay within DNR’s land base. Johnson could not say if Clallam County commissioners would approve of the transfer.
Timber industry group American Forest Resource Council issued a statement questioning the motivation behind the move and urging local leaders to consider the financial impacts.
“Let’s be clear, this is not a climate solution. Using public monies to convert more of Washington’s working lands and forests into no touch ‘set asides’ is more about politics and appeasing anti-forestry groups than it is about science, strategic climate investments, or common sense,” said Travis Joseph, AFRC president.
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.