Should we be subsidizing clear cutting of our forest lands in Island County?
I’ve been hearing concerns about the clear cutting around the county. One thing I don’t hear people talking about is that many of these properties being clear cut are subsidized by our property taxes. Most of these properties are in the timber tax program, called Designated Forest, RCW 84.33. This is the tax subsidy program for people who are growing and harvesting timber.
Over 13,700 acres in Island County are in this timber tax program. Subsidies vary, but many of these large property owners pay less than $50 a year in property taxes. All told, the 2021 subsidies for this program are approximately $1.7 million. The total tax collected remains the same, it’s just paid for by the rest of us. Roughly 9 percent of our property tax bills pick up what these timber properties do not pay. Interestingly enough, nearly half of the property owners receiving this subsidy annually live outside Island County.
Some people argue that these subsidies encourage owners to maintain healthy forest lands, which benefits both the environment and the rural character of our islands. They also argue that it encourages forest preservation and discourages development. While some property owners take this responsibility seriously and do it well, this isn’t often the case.
Properties in the program are required to have a management plan, but many do not. These plans can include sustainable practices that manage the forests well so they are good habitat for wildlife, and include logging plans that minimize destructive impacts. But very few properties actually have sustainable management plans, and existing plans are often not followed. Some owners do little or nothing with their properties for years or decades and are then surprised to get a notice from the assessor directing them to log or risk paying tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. This often results in a scramble to bring in a logger, who usually clear cuts the property, partially because without proper maintenance selective thinning is not profitable.
While the timber tax subsidy may encourage some owners to delay developing, people generally develop their property when the time is right for them.
Some developers don’t act in good faith. Instead of declaring their intent to develop and abiding by Island County’s Critical Areas ordinance, they falsely claim their intent is to remain in forestry, which then exempts them from having to follow the ordinance that requires replanting and waiting six years to develop.
This waiting period is supposed to give the forest time to heal. However, Island County’s code has a loophole that allows them to lift that moratorium early, as long as they jump through a few hoops.
I think it is time for us to be asking ourselves, is the timber tax program in Island County, which we subsidize with $1.7 million annually, giving us the results we want?
The amount of timber produced on our islands is insignificant compared to the massive timber farms on the mainland. In fact, the state and the county acknowledge that Island County has no forests of long-term commercial significance. If anything, I think the sporadic nature of clear cutting on our islands, and the backlash of negative press towards logging as a result, is a detriment to the timber industry.
Instead, I think the real value of the forest lands on our islands is in their aesthetics and environmental benefits, such as cleaning and controlling storm water, minimizing erosion, aquifer recharge and providing important habitat for wildlife, especially pollinator habitats needed for our local farms.
Personally, I am happy to subsidize long-lasting healthy forest lands, but the timber program is meant more for commercial timber harvest, rather than preservation.
A much better option would be to expand the Public Benefit Rating System, or PBRS, program to incorporate forest properties that do have a management plan for sustainably maintaining the forest, and encourage property owners in the timber program to move to that. The county could incentivize timber properties to move to PBRS at no extra cost.
The county could also grant funds to property owners who hire experts, such as those at WSU or the Conservation District, to draft sustainable forestry plans for them. We should also consider establishing a forest retention program that could offer incentives or set requirements to maintain forests and keep clearing of properties to a minimum.
Timber is an important resource and we should be supportive of the timber industry, particularly those who maintain forests sustainably.
I don’t see the benefit of relatively small properties on islands harvesting timber. I especially don’t see why we are spending $1.7 million in property taxes each year to encourage them to do so.
The truth is, forests on our islands are critical, and we should do what we can to encourage healthy and strong forests.