State lands officials say a proposal to transfer 500,000 acres of state forest to Western Washington counties could harm firefighting efforts statewide.
County officials supporting the plan say they can manage the timberlands more efficiently and get a better return than the state.
But state Commissioner of Public Lands Jennifer Belcher said if the proposal is approved, the state would have to cut its staff of foresters, who also are among the state’s most experienced forest firefighters.
Some of those foresters helped fight fires that burned thousands of acres in Eastern and Central Washington last summer.
“It’s a grab by the counties,” Belcher said of the land transfer. “And I can understand, because these lands are pretty valuable.”
Timber sales on the lands have generated $550 million over the last decade, Belcher said. Most of that money is divided between the counties where the land is located and the state budget for schools.
The share going to the counties and the schools would not change under the proposal.
But the state Department of Natural Resources would lose a 25 percent share it now gets to manage the lands. That money instead would go to the counties that assume the land management duties.
The agency said it may have to cut as many as 90 positions if the proposal is approved.
“Who’s going to do the firefighting?” Belcher said.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, who sponsored the Senate version of the proposal, said that won’t be a problem. “There are plenty of firefighters out there,” he said.
Hargrove said the DNR doesn’t allow enough logging and isn’t managing the lands as well as the counties can.
The contested lands, known as “forest board transfer lands,” are located mostly in 18 Western Washington counties. The lands were once owned by the counties, which had acquired them early in the century from private owners who were delinquent on taxes.
The state Legislature obtained the lands in the 1920s and 1930s with the aim of managing them to ensure continuing timber supplies and revenue. They now make up 26 percent of the state-owned forest trust lands managed by DNR.
Some county officials say they can do a better job.
“We can manage those lands far cheaper than what DNR can do,” said Clallam County Commissioner Phil Kitchel. “They’re so overstaffed it’s pathetic.”
Clallam County contains the largest portion of the contested lands - more than 92,000 acres. The county relies on the income from the state lands to help pay for local services. Kitchel said county residents could pay less in property taxes if more money came from stepped-up timber sales on the forest lands.
Belcher argues it makes more sense to keep the lands as one statemanaged unit rather than dividing them up and turning them over to local governments.
“The question is, can it be managed more effectively in 19 smaller pieces than in one large one, and I think the answer is no,” Belcher said.
Counties have to comply with the same state and federal laws as the DNR, she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.