Sound Off: Coverage of clear-cutting on island doesn’t tell complete story

  • Tuesday, June 8, 2021 2:02pm
  • Opinion

Your recent article, “Despite how it may seem, clear-cutting not increasing,” lacks important context and is likely to lead to more confusion and conflation on this vital issue. There is no disputing that significant deforestation has occurred over the past several years in Island County. The Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, clear-cut permits capture only a portion of that deforestation activity and it is a flawed premise to tell readers that what their eyes are seeing every day in accumulating forest-loss and development are mere illusions.

One need only look at NASA’s robust satellite imagery to see the cumulative impact of deforestation on our island over the past decade. The data captures significant loss in remarkable detail using Near-Infrared Sensing and shows “reforestation” or regrowth is occurring at a fraction of the pace of loss. This is largely due to the fact that after a clear-cut occurs, it is frequently converted out of dedicated working forest land and into development.

These “after-the-cut-conversions” are currently allowable in Island County and several off-island developers are exploiting the gap in policy to great personal profit while leaving lasting harm to our island’s fragile ecosystem. The Whidbey News-Times coverage lacks this critical distinction with its implication that all these clear-cuts are simply replanted as working forests. To the contrary, once these forests are converted, they are permanently lost.

To make matters worse, these one-off conversions are not being efficiently tracked between DNR and the county. To county staff’s credit, there is now a nascent effort to address the most egregious of these gaps and loopholes, but much work remains to ensure our county policies protect Whidbey from bad actors.

When more than 20 island farmers showed up to speak earnestly on the matter at the Island County commissioners’ meeting several weeks ago, their collective intent was to raise awareness to the impact of the steady loss of the islands’ natural infrastructure. Forest systems serve many critical functions for our island and our food system such as stormwater abatement and filtration, critical aquifer recharge, invasive species repression, raptor habitat for rodent and disease vector control, soil carbon sequestration, wind mitigation and beneficial insect habitat, to name just a few.

The May 14 News-Times story that covered the hearing focused too narrowly on the concerns of pollinator habitat loss and delayed bee emergence which, unfortunately, served to conflate the core issue of deforestation and its impact on our island. We farmers were simply asking our commissioners to consider the value of our island’s forest systems more broadly, while also encouraging WSU Island County Extension to begin collecting data on pollinator populations so that assessments do not rely on speculation and anecdote.

We are at a crossroads with the county code, which currently values island forests only as potential lumber and effectively incentivizes their harvest with our collective taxes. We are only asking that the code, policy and practice be brought into the 21st century like many of the surrounding counties have already done by also reflecting the public benefit of the natural infrastructure and ecosystem services that forests provide.

To be clear, this would do nothing to take away a property owner’s rights to selectively harvest timber as a managed forestland and even receive tax abatement for it. We simply want to:

A. close the loopholes/reduce conversions of designated forestland;

B. build on the existing system to add options for property owners who would also like to manage their forests for the greater public benefit they provide, and;

C. modernize the code around this space.

So, if you hear someone falsely framing this as a choice between property rights, housing development and conservation, they either don’t understand the policies or are intentionally conflating the situation for political reasons. Don’t be fooled. These are common-sense reforms that simply add options for property owners while incentivizing the preservation of the natural, rural character of the island we love.

We remain optimistic as grass-roots momentum builds and sparks of leadership emerge with the Island County commissioners around this subject.

If this is an issue you care about, now is a critical time to make your voice heard and get involved. Our local government works when we stay respectfully engaged and support those who support the issues we care about. Many county staffers care deeply about their work and stand ready to implement positive changes in this light should leadership direct.

Here’s hoping we can bring our island’s forestry code into the 21st century and work together to balance fever-pitched development with the natural, rural character of the islands we inhabit.

South Whidbey Island resident Jake Stewart submitted this Sound Off on behalf of Sweetwater Farm, Deep Harvest Farm, Foxtail Farms, Nettle Forest Farm, Full Cycle Farm, Foggy Hill Farm, Dunham Farm, Shipki Farm and Island Harvest Farm.

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