Timber Harvest Focus of Wash. Lands Race

In his bid for re-election, Washington's public lands commissioner touts a new plan that calls for harvesting more timber from state forests as one of the reasons he deserves a second term.

His Democratic rival says it's a strong case for ousting the incumbent.

Doug Sutherland (search), a moderate Republican who has won over a number of conservationists, is running against state Rep. Mike Cooper (search), the favorite among environmental groups, Democratic Party loyalists and labor unions.

Sutherland beamed a bright smile last month when the Board of Natural Resources (search), after dozens of public meetings spanning more than three years, unanimously approved a timber-harvest target averaging 597 million board feet a year in Western Washington over the next 10 years.

Sutherland, the board's chairman, hailed the harvest target as both ecologically and economically responsible, saying it would raise more money for school construction, meet state and federal standards for protecting fish and wildlife, and make the forests healthier by thinning areas choked with too many trees.

Cooper counters there isn't much sustainable about the so-called "sustainable harvest calculation."

As he sees it, the plan calls for too much clearcutting, threatens drinking water and salmon habitat, and leaves old-growth forests vulnerable.

"You don't make a forest healthier by cutting it down," said Cooper, a firefighter who has spent eight years representing the Edmonds area in the Legislature.

What Cooper calls a clearcut, Sutherland calls a "regeneration harvest" — a forestry term for cutting down most of a stand of trees to maximize the amount of light, water and nutrients for a fresh crop.

At least eight trees are left standing on every acre of a regeneration harvest, which Cooper says is hardly enough to provide worthwhile habitat for wildlife.

"You drive by a clearcut and you see the lonely eight trees out in the middle. What I call them is blow-down trees. They're out there waiting to be blown down in a winter storm," Cooper said.

As head of the Department of Natural Resources, the lands commissioner oversees logging on about 2 million acres of state forests and regulates the timber harvest on 8 million acres of privately owned land.

Money from the state's timber sales goes into a trust that funds school construction, libraries, hospitals, county services and other needs. That forces the lands commissioner to strike a delicate balance between maximizing revenue for the trust and protecting the environment.

Sutherland's backers, including former Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner and board members of several conservation groups, say he's a master at the art of compromising who's done a good job of striking that balance.

"I think Doug's got a real knack of finding somewhere in the middle ground so everyone gets something they want without giving away the store," Gardner said.

Cooper and his supporters accuse Sutherland of selling out to the timber industry and other business interests that have contributed to his campaign.

Sutherland, elected lands commissioner in 2000 when he was Pierce County Executive, bristles at any suggestion he's in anyone's pocket.

"I've pissed off just about everybody at one time or another," Sutherland said, adding that the state's new harvest target is much lower than some in the timber industry had been pushing for.

Peter Goldman, a wealthy environmental activist, recently donated a quarter of a million dollars to Citizens Protecting Our Water and Forests, a group he helped set up to thwart Sutherland's run for a second term.

Among his long list of complaints about Sutherland, Goldman criticized the incumbent's support for "green certification" through the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a program created by the American Forest & Paper Association.

Goldman and other conservationists favor the Forest Stewardship Council's program, which has higher environmental standards.

"The only way for Washington to retain a viable forest industry is to improve its practices," Goldman said. "It's just too cheap to grow trees somewhere else."

Sutherland said both programs offer an environmental seal of approval that would make the state's wood more valuable, but chose to pursue SFI certification first, because all it requires is for the state to improve training for loggers and become a member of the initiative.

To counteract the group campaigning against Sutherland, several timber companies recently donated about $300,000 to a group called Committee for Balanced Stewardship.

Sutherland has a substantial fund-raising edge over Cooper, with about $408,000 raised and $120,00 in the bank. Cooper has pulled in roughly $277,000 and has $29,000 in cash on hand.

For all their differences, the candidates do agree on some points, like setting aside more aquatic reserves — a program Sutherland created to protect submerged lands near environmentally sensitive shorelines — and leasing more state land to wind power farms.