Spate of clearcuts on the horizon: Permits OK’d for 90 acres, pending for another 44

An influx of clearcuts is coming to Whidbey Island, according to recent Department of Natural Resources decisions analyzed by a local environmental-protection group.

In April alone, that state agency, often known as DNR, approved 90.75 acres for clearcutting, and left pending applications to clearcut another 44 acres, said Marianne Edain, a coordinator with Whidbey Environment Action Network, or WEAN.

Another 38.5 acres were approved for thinning.

“We are anti-clearcutting, not anti-logging,” Edain said, addressing a meeting of the county’s planning commission on May 9.

“Clearcutting is a disastrous form of logging, and there are many examples of very successful selective logging. If you take two percent of a forest per year, you can do that forever.”

The clearcuts — set out in Forest Practice “notices of decision” approving harvests of 70 percent or more of the trees on a property — are slated to occur at the southwest corner of the intersection of Lone Lake and Goss Lake Roads, in Langley; at the intersection of Libbey and West Beach Roads, between Coupeville and Oak Harbor; off Sleeper Road southwest of Dugualla State Park, near Oak Harbor; off Lone Lake Road near Saratoga Road, in Langley; Becker Road, near the Bayview Road dog park, in Bayview; and just south of Chase Lake, north of Freeland.

No start dates are provided. Some of the sites to be logged involve slopes with grades of up to 50 percent, according to the notices.

Some clearcuts are conversions, meaning the land will be built on. Most by law must be reforested — though “what that actually means in practice varies widely,” Edain said. In any case, she said, “A replanted clearcut is not a forest — it is a rather sad tree farm.”

WEAN hasn’t consistently tracked Forest Practice notices of decision, said Edain, but “my sense is that clearcutting has been increasing over the past year.”

Tracking clearcuts and their effects is hard, she said, in part because of internal inconsistencies within applications. For example, one recent application cited plans to cut 80 percent of 26 acres at Lone Lake and Goss Lake roads, but claimed to be exempt from the requirement to reforest the area, checking the box claiming, “I am leaving at least 100 vigorous, undamaged and well-distributed saplings or merchantable trees per acre.”

If those 100 trees represent the 20 percent uncut on each acre, there must be another 400 trees making up the 80 percent to be cut, Edain observed.

“So 500 vigorous, merchantable trees per acre? That’s a pretty high number — unrealistically high.”

Not necessarily, responded Steve Ranten, the forest-practice coordinator for DNR’s Northwest region. “It’s really hard to tell whether that’s realistic without seeing the site, but in a multi-age stand, it is possible,” he said.

DNR imposes stringent controls on clearcuts, Ranten said. “There are many restrictions in black and white, and our foresters do a tremendous amount of field review.”

Regulations preclude clearcuts of greater than 40 acres on saltwater islands like Whidbey, for example.

Some defend clearcuts. 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 clearcuts.

Douglas fir depend on full-sun conditions to thrive — conditions that occur after a fire or a massive windstorm. Clearcutting 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.

A lot of Island County residents would like to see the county gain full control over logging, excluding the state altogether, said Bill Poss, development coordinator in the county’s public-works department. At the moment, the county regulates logging only when landowners cut timber to clear a site for building, not when they harvest. “But the county’s perspective is that we’re obligated to administer the regulations as they are, not as they could be,” Poss said.