For the past three months Center for Sustainable Economy (CSE) and its partners have been challenging clearcutting proposals on state forestlands in Washington on the grounds that clearcutting is both driving climate change and making the land more susceptible to its effects. Given that climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth, it seems obvious that the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) would require consideration of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated with each of these logging proposals as well as the ways clearcutting is making the land more vulnerable to wildfires, water shortages, droughts, landslides, floods and heat waves – climate change impacts being felt on an almost daily basis in Washington State and around the world.
In the context of each challenge, CSE has provided extensive scientific information and data sources DNR should be using to meet its SEPA duties. Remarkably, DNR’s generic response to these challenges is that climate change is not on the agency’s SEPA checklist and so warrants no attention whatsoever as timber sales are planned, sold, and logged. Here is an excerpt from one of DNR’s generic responses:
“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.”
Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands heads up the agency, and has signaled her intent to run for governor in 2024. Ms. Franz should take full responsibility for DNR’s response, which is disturbing for several reasons.
First, SEPA procedures do, in fact, require analysis of climate impacts. Climate is an important element of the environment listed on Department of Ecology’s SEPA rules under the heading of air quality and Ecology’s SEPA checklist guidance specifically notes that that “[g]reenhouse gas emissions are considered an air pollutant and may need to be addressed. If the amount of emission cannot be quantified, describe the source(s) including known or assumed quantities.” While climate impacts are not specified in DNR’s environmental checklist, that is irrelevant since by law, Ecology’s SEPA rules are to be accorded “substantial deference” over DNR’s procedures.
Moreover, a recent appellate court decision reiterates the necessity of considering climate impacts in the SEPA context. In Washington State Dairy Federation vs. Ecology, Justice Anne Cruser underscores the necessity of climate impact analysis at the project level as part of SEPA’s madate to “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations (RCW 42.21C.020(2)(a)).”
Secondly, to avoid the legal duty to analyze climate impacts by claiming that ‘the science is evolving’ is right out of the playbooks of the world’s most notorious climate deniers. Famously, and despite contrary evidence from its own scientists, Exxon Mobil engaged in a decades-long public relations campaign “explicitly aimed to ‘extend the science’ and ‘emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect’.” DNR is using public tax dollars to do the same for its logging program.
Third, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with all of the logging projects CSE and its partners have challenged thus far exceed the SEPA threshold for significance and thus ought to trigger preparation of a detailed environmental analysis or environmental impact statement and inclusion of mitigation measures to minimize a project’s carbon footprint.
In the SEPA context, a project that emits over 10,000 metric tons CO2 over its lifetime is generally considered one that surpasses the threshold for significance. All of the timber sales CSE and its partners are challenging surpass this threshold by a large margin. DNR has all the methods and sources of information to be able to verify this, but instead is choosing to look the other way and ignore project-level greenhouse gas emissions entirely.
What this does is preclude the possibility of alternative, climate smart project designs to business-as-usual logging. This means avoiding any additional logging of carbon rich legacy (naturally regenerated), mature and old growth forests, prohibiting new road construction, and using lower-impact techniques such as variable density thinning to help accelerate the development of fully functional forest conditions from timber plantations. These techniques will advance key biodiversity and climate goals, employ more workers, and put DNR in a position to take part in evolving carbon markets that can provide more income to the beneficiaries of its timber sale program (including schools) than what can be earned from timber alone. But by ignoring its SEPA duties DNR is precluding these win-win-win solutions for the climate, for communities, and for workers.
As the climate crisis continues to spin out of control Commissioner Franz has an opportunity to protect and restore Washington’s state forestlands as part of a regional network of strategic forest carbon reserves. CSE and its partners will continue to press the case before DNR and before the legislature for this change. But by continuing down the path of climate denials and evasion of SEPA duties, Commissioner Franz and other DNR staff are building a wall of resistance that promises to keep business-as-usual clearcutting and its harmful climate impacts on the land for the foreseeable future.