The Department of Natural Resources decided on Tuesday, Nov. 1, to move forward with the planned auction of a 40-acre plot of forest in Whatcom County, despite objections from conservationists and environmental activists.
The Box of Rain forest is located just 40 minutes east of Bellingham, in the Middle Fork Nooksack River watershed. The Box of Rain is considered a “legacy” forest, meaning it doesn’t quite meet the requirements to be labeled as old-growth but is well on its way to developing old-growth characteristics. The trees range from anywhere between 82-109 years old, according to the Department of Natural Resources, and have had the chance to naturally regenerate since last being logged.
Conservationists say that legacy forests offer a host of ecological benefits but don’t receive the same level of protection as old-growth forests.
Approximately 10 acres of the forest parcel planned for logging blew down after a windstorm in 2021, according to the Department of Natural Resources. DNR cited this as a key reason why the auction was finalized — if trees remain downed for more than a few years, they lose all ability to be sold for materials.
Several studies have confirmed that legacy forests can sequester carbon at a much higher rate than younger forests, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to DNR Communications Manager Kenny Ocker, however, the fact that a majority of the trees have been blown down means that the Box of Rain’s carbon sequestration potential has significantly decreased.
The Department of Natural Resources has a carbon project that aims to conserve ecologically and culturally valuable forests for the purpose of sequestering carbon. Before the auction was finalized, the Center for Responsible Forestry was working toward having the Box of Rain included among the forests protected under the project.
The Box of Rain doesn’t meet DNR’s requirements to qualify as an “ecologically and culturally valuable” forest, however, and likely would not have been conserved under the carbon project regardless of the downed trees, according to Ocker.
“There’s places we’re looking at protecting that have a lot of abundant cultural resources, like mostly modified trees, or [that] have unique plant communities or are significantly older and already have more carbon built up in them,” Ocker said. “[The Box of Rain] doesn’t fit any of those.”
Center for Responsible Forestry Communications Coordinator Brel Froebe disagrees.
According to Froebe, the Box of Rain not only contains dozens of culturally modified trees, but it also exhibits a significantly higher level of structural complexity compared to a tree plantation and is on its way to developing old-growth characteristics.
The planned plot to be logged may be only 40 acres but is part of a larger 800-acre parcel of legacy forest that extends up the Clearwater Creek Watershed and right along a recent dam removal site in the Middle Fork Nooksack River.
The dam removal was a coordinated effort by the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, Whatcom County and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to open up a 16-mile portion of salmon spawning habitat that had been previously blocked since 1962, according to Froebe.
The planned timber sale parcel of the Box of Rain stands only 200 feet from the Nooksack River, and its logging could have detrimental impacts on the health of salmon populations within the watershed.
According to Froebe, older and more mature forests like the Box of Rain use significantly less water when compared to younger, plantation forests and can reduce the risk of low summer stream flows – one of the main contributors to low salmon populations in the Nooksack watershed.
“Not only is that ecologically significant, but that’s very culturally significant when we know that both Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe have deep, deep connections to salmon and the need for the Nooksack Watershed to continue to have a thriving salmon population,” Froebe said.
The Center for Responsible Forestry, an organization dedicated to advocating for the conservation of older forests in Western Washington, has been at the forefront of the battle to protect the Box of Rain.
“It’s not necessarily an anti-logging organization,” said Emily Freudenberger, a member of the Center for Responsible Forestry. “It’s more about figuring out more responsible ways and more equitable ways to balance the needs of humans and harvesting wood, while also recognizing and respecting the ecological impacts that these forests have.”
The Box of Rain may have already been put to auction, but there’s still more work to be done, according to Freudenberger and Froebe.
“The bigger picture is just getting DNR to protect all legacy forests,” Freudenberger said. “There’s only 77,000 acres [of legacy forest in Washington State].”
Another parcel of the 800-acre legacy forest that the Box of Rain is a part of, called Brokedown Palace, is scheduled for auction this February. Brokedown Palace similarly borders the Middle Fork Nooksack River, and is just downriver from the dam removal project.
Public pressure can be the catalyst for these forests being protected, as was the case earlier this year when the Bessie Sorts timber sale in the Lake Whatcom Watershed was prevented from going to auction and conserved under DNR’s carbon project.
“We’re talking about county-level politics. This isn’t like asking the U.S. government to transition away from fossil fuels,” Freudenberger said. “This is a form of political engagement that not only feels important, but it feels impactful.”
Liam Pratt, a co-founder of Western Washington University’s Students for Climate Action, had worked with his fellow club members to halt the Box of Rain sale before the auction was finalized.
For Pratt, it’s important that those who talk the talk about environmental issues also walk the walk.
“You can’t say that you care about trees and forests and nature and then not actively participate in trying to protect that,” Pratt said.
Nina Walsh (she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front. She studies political science and journalism.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.