Guest Commentary: State Older Forest Auction Undercuts Investment in Salmon, Chehalis Basin Flood Reduction


Since the catastrophic flood of 2007 inundated the cities of Centralia and Chehalis and closed Interstate 5, Lewis County and state leaders have been planning and taking action to reduce flood damage in the Chehalis Basin. Backed by substantial state funding, the Chehalis Basin Strategy is dedicating equal effort and dollars to restore habitat for salmon and other aquatic species.

As a resident of the Chehalis Basin and a river advocate, I’ve closely followed the planning and progress of this initiative with great interest and optimism that sustainable and equitable solutions are within reach.  

So I was taken aback when I read a recent Seattle Times story about the state of Washington’s auction of more than 100 acres of older forest in the headwaters of the Chehalis River. Anyone who remembers the 2007 flood may recall that unsustainable logging practices were a major contributor to the unprecedented flood damage. 

As The Seattle Times also reported in the wake of the flood under the headline “Did development, logging set the stage for disaster,” flood waters from “high up the Chehalis River stripped gargantuan loads of silt and timber off the hills, and dumped it along with the water that swamped homes, garages and barns to depths of up to 12 feet in some upriver communities.”

The story goes on to describe how the accumulated logging debris “(i)n some areas may have acted like small dams, temporarily holding back water until they toppled or breach.” 

The state’s plans to continue logging older forests points to a major blind spot in the Chehalis Basin Strategy. While investing in deep scientific evaluation and study of the myriad factors that lead to the extreme flood damage in the Basin, the state-backed initiative has yet to take a meaningful look at the role logging practices play, and how changes to those practices could help reduce flood damage moving forward.

The McCannon timber sale is a forest well on its way to becoming old growth and the largest parcel of the sale is located along the banks of Cannonball Creek just a mile upstream of its confluence with the Chehalis River near Pe Ell.

We know that old growth forests provide superior habitat for many animals and plants and deliver clear, cold water to salmon streams during Northwest summers when water is increasingly scarce as climate change drives more drought. Scientists tell us that older and old growth forests also capture and store far more carbon than the ecologically-diminished forests that make up the majority of our publicly-owned state forestlands.

The McCannon timber sale will put $2.8 million into state coffers yet perpetuates logging practices that are central to the decline of salmon and exacerbate flood damage in a place where the state is spending tens of millions of dollars every year on solutions to those two very problems.

The Chehalis Basin Strategy represents a deep, long-term commitment to the health and prosperity of people and nature. The damage to nature from the timber sale is well understood. The economic return, especially in light of the state’s generational investment in the Chehalis Basin, is questionable at best.  

I worked for the City of Centralia for nearly ten years. I understand how challenging it is for small and rural communities to find enough money to keep public services going. But the more we learn about the many and diverse benefits intact forests provide, the more urgently we must move on from outdated policies that trade away our forests for firetrucks, school funding and other essential services. 

I am heartened to see that the Washington State Department of Natural Resources is embracing more ecologically and economically sustainable practices and supporting a state bill that would allow the agency to compete in the carbon offset market.

Generating revenues by capturing the value of living forests is far more in line with the 21st Century problems we face and solutions we must find. In the meantime, it’s time to stop logging off our older forests, which are enormously valuable left standing today, and a legacy we will leave for future generations.


Lee First lives in Rochester and works for Twin Harbors Waterkeeper, an organization dedicated to safeguarding the health and clean water of the Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay watersheds. First worked as an environmental supervisor for the City of Centralia for nearly 10 years.