The Washington state DNR manages 5.6 million acres of public property, including forests, grasslands, croplands, aquatic and commercial land. But the agency also gets rid of public forests via land exchanges with private companies.
The DNR’s state-wide strategy pulls public ownership — and protection –from scattered lowland forests at risk of redevelopment due to nearby urban or highway sprawl. In return, the DNR accepts swathes of timberland higher up in the mountains; the buffers between the land and development pressures make it easy for the DNR to create big parcels of land for future timber harvests.
While the trades reduce the DNR’s management costs, they also allow older growth public forests to be rezoned and redeveloped for private profit — at a time when school, state and county budgets are hurting. The state’s Constitution mandates that the DNR revenues produced by selling the public’s natural resources — such as timber or shellfish — support public schools, state institutions, and county services.
Though the DNR’s land has belonged to the public since statehood, the public doesn’t get the financial benefit of their land’s redevelopment — only the environmental cost.
That’s because the state’s appraisal of its land’s value is based on the notion that the land will remain in commercial forestry forever — even when the company pursuing the land wishes to rezone and redevelop it.
Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark says he doesn’t want the state to rezone its property itself because he doesn’t want to facilitate the conversion of forests into subdivisions. Doing so would deprive the private sector of a steady and expected profit stream, said Natural Resources boardmember Bruce Bare, who also said the state isn’t agile enough to capture the full value of the public property it disposes of through exchanges.
But deferring the rezones to the private sector also allows the state to sidestep a review of the net environmental effect of its exchanges, which lead to the destruction of some of the state’s last lowland forests.
Some communities have pulled together public and private funds to buy private forest development rights, assuring that the land will support trees and wildlife rather than buildings. The state legislature has set aside millions for just that purpose — even as the state DNR sends comparable public forests into redevelopment by the private sector.
— Kristen Young
KUOW is training InvestigateWest reporters to produce radio news, allowing our nonprofit to add the broadcast capacity needed to reach more people.