They’re big, they’re shockingly ugly, and you probably can’t do a thing about them. They’re clear-cuts, the elimination of every tree on a piece of property.
Under current state and county law, clear-cuts are often permissible, and they mar the landscape from south to north on Whidbey Island — or exemplify an efficient and ecologically sound timber-harvesting method, depending on your point of view.
Both may be true.
A common sight
There are usually several fresh clear-cuts on Whidbey at any given time. Recent clear-cuts include those off Bayview Road near Wheel Drive, off Bayview Road near Deer Lagoon Grange Hall, near Admirals Cove off Highway 20 and on Cultus Bay Road south of Highway 525. The city of Oak Harbor in February clear-cut 40 acres of its property off Sleeper Road.
Land can be cleared either to harvest timber or to build on. Oak Harbor made $244,000 from its cut.
The largest clear-cuts tend to be made for timber harvests.
One clear-cut — by Coupeville resident Curt Youderian, on a 13.5-acre site about a mile west of Highway 20 on Patmore Road — serves as an example.
Youderian on Feb. 12 got permission from the state’s Department of Natural Resources to harvest roughly 300,000 board feet of lumber. The harvest type was to be “even-aged,” meaning a clear-cut of trees that are all about the same age and size.
On his application, Youderian said he plans to replant the area with Douglas fir.
State law imposes some restrictions on clear-cuts. On saltwater islands, such as Whidbey, clear-cuts can’t cover more than 40 contiguous acres. Proposed clear-cuts near streams and wetlands and on unstable slopes receive extra attention, said Rich Dodd, a district manager from the state agency.
Youderian’s application got a bit of extra scrutiny before it was approved, Dodd said. But by the end of March, the trees had vanished from the land he said his family has owned for 70 years.
Youderian’s property is within Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. That might lead you to think clear-cutting is prohibited.
But it’s not.
The Reserve was created in 1972 to “preserve and protect a rural community which provides an unbroken historical record from 19th-century exploration and settlement in Puget Sound to the present time,” according to the law creating it. It is protected by design review and community design guidelines set out in Island County Code section 17.04A.
Yet 85 percent of the Reserve consists of private property, and “private property, unless governed by other land-use regulations, is still private property,” said Reserve Manager Kristen Griffin.
“The owner can do whatever he wants with it, regardless of whether it’s in the reserve, subject to regulations.”
Still, Youserian’s clear-cutting attracted the attention of John Clark, the county’s code-enforcement officer, who imposed a brief cease-and-desist order on the timbering.
“Any time there’s clearing going on at the Reserve, I make it a policy to see if it meets the Reserve’s design guidelines,” Clark said. “I stopped the work there, came back to my office and did a ton of research.”
Clark reached the same conclusion Griffin had.
Among other things, Clark read Island County Code section 17.04A.020, the last sentence of which states that the standards meant to protect the Reserve do not apply to “timber management activities conducted in accordance with Chapter 84.33 RCW or Chapter 84.34 RCW.” Those chapters of the Revised Code of Washington lay out the law concerning logging and taxation.
“He was perfectly within his rights to cut,” Clark said. “He was very cooperative, too. He stopped as soon as I asked him to and continued work only after we worked together and decided what he was doing was permissible.”
But why would someone cut down every single tree on a property?
For one thing, there’s the value of the timber itself. Landowners can reasonably expect between $360 and $370 per thousand board feet of Douglas fir that’s good quality and 60-80 years old, said Bob Redling, a Department of Natural Resources spokesman.
That would make Youderian’s 300,000-board-feet worth $108,000 to $111,000.
But Youderian, who said in an interview that he hasn’t been paid yet for the timber, estimated it’s worth far less than that -— and in any case, he added, the clear-cut was not about money.
“This was about managing trees that should have been thinned 20 years ago and had laminated root rot and Indian paint fungus,” he said. “Some of the trees were 30 inches in diameter, but they had 18-inch holes in them. If you don’t thin your forest, which I didn’t, it comes back to bite you.
“Because I didn’t manage it, it cost me the forest.”
Selective logging — cutting down only some of the trees — wasn’t an option, Youderian said. “If I hadn’t clear-cut, the entire stand would have been completely worthless,” because the root rot and fungus would have spread, he said.
He said he plans to replant with western red cedar or alder, depending on the advice of an expert he has hired.
He wants to eventually replant with Douglas fir, but it’s not resistant enough to rot, so that will have to wait until the rot “burns itself out” one or two crops from now, he said.
Another reason to cut down a forest is the break that a landowner enrolled in the state’s designated forest program gets on property taxes assessed against the wooded land, according to Island County Assessor Mary Engle. That break disappears if the landowner doesn’t periodically cut trees.
The state-run designated forest program “is not about conservation,” Engle noted. “It’s not about saving the forest but about commercially harvesting and giving back to the community, so we have timber to build timbers and barns.”
In Washington, any owner of five or more contiguous wooded acres with no house on it may join the program after filing a timber-management plan.
Of Island County’s 57,000 parcels, about 1,500 are in the designated forest program.
For as long as the land remains in the program, it is taxed at a reduced rate. The reduction can be “huge,” Engle said. She sees 90 percent reductions “quite often.”
Oddly, the amount of the reduction depends not on the quantity or quality of timber taken off the property but on the quality of the soil that it’s growing in. Every year DNR sends the county updated lists of soil value so the county can update the value of the lands in the program, Engle said.
Landowners can be kicked out of the program if they don’t replant seedlings within two years after a harvest. Under county code, they can’t build on property they just logged for six years thereafter, though the code allows an early removal of the moratorium under some circumstances, said Bill Poss, development coordinator in the county’s Public Works department.
No matter how much property owners may appreciate their forest’s beauty or how strongly the neighbors lobby them, if owners are in the program, they can’t choose to never harvest their trees, Engle said.
Timber-management plans, which are often written with the help of forestry consultants, among other things must specify when trees should be cut for optimum forest health and maximum timber value, she said.
If they don’t, the assessor won’t accept the landowner into the program.
Reasons to harvest
Appraisers from the assessor’s office inspect every forested parcel once every six years. Then they check whether landowners in the program are following their timber-management plans. If it appears that a harvest set out in the plan has not been carried out, the Assessor sends a letter noting the lack of compliance.
If the Assessor and landowner can’t agree on a harvest plan, the landowner is removed from the program, Engle said.
But nothing in the law requires the landowner to clear-cut the forest, said Kathy Beith, assistant director of the property tax division in the state’s Department of Revenue.
“The law is silent on how the cut is made,” Beith said. “Landowners do have latitude based on the best practices for what they’re growing.”
If property owners withdraw from the program at any time — say, because of a desire to build on their wooded property — they must pay back property taxes for each year the property was in the program, up to a maximum of nine years.
There are certainly reasonable alternatives to clear-cutting.
These include selective logging, or high grading, in which only those trees with the highest value are felled; selection cutting, in which only a portion of the trees in a stand are cut down, leaving groups of trees or evenly spaced trees untouched; and buffering, which leaves a strip of trees standing to conceal the logging behind it.
But the Washington Forest Protection Association, an Olympia-based group of private forest-land owners including logging giants Campbell Global, Rayonier and Weyerhaeuser, said both economic and ecological rationales support clear-cuts.
Douglas firs depend on full-sun conditions to thrive — conditions that occur after a fire or a massive windstorm. Clear-cutting simulates those conditions to create an open area, the group said on its website. Large-scale harvests disturb the forest soil and water less than frequent, smaller incursions, it said.
In any case, “our forest-practices laws have evolved, so clear-cuts in Washington are much smaller than they were in the 1960s,” said association spokesperson Cindy Mitchell. She compared clear-cuts to “harvesting a wheat field or any other agricultural product.”
Aesthetics or balance
Even if clear-cuts are legal and in some ways beneficial, are they desirable? Some say “no.”
“There should be an environmental review process,” Maryon Attwood, who lives on Patmore Road near the clear-cut there, wrote in a letter to the editor in the Whidbey News-Times. “Major clear-cuts have huge impacts on all the abutting landowners in terms of animals being displaced and how the wind moves through the area.”
“Youderian was within his rights, but just because we’ve been doing this for 100 years doesn’t mean we should keep doing it. We used to have nuclear testing above ground and own slaves.”
“Is this really how we want to present ourselves to the world?”
Some officials see clear-cuts as the price we pay for having land kept covered with trees.
“When you see logging going on, at least under the designated forest program, you know that land won’t be built on and subdivided,” said County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.
Clear-cuts can be “a hard thing to see, especially when they’re near your home,” she acknowledged, but “I’ve lived here long enough to see trees regrowing and turning into habitat again.”
“It’s important to have a balanced view.”