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Go figure: A dam removal, followed by clearcut?

Middle Fork's 'Brokedown Palace' stand should remain standing

An aerial view of Middle Fork Nooksack Dam surrounded by dense forests.
A drone shot shows the site of the former Middle Fork Nooksack Dam, which was removed in 2020. Above it is Brokedown Palace, a steep slope made up of 300-year-old cedars that stabilize the forest floor. (Photo courtesy of RE Sources)
By Rob Lewis Guest Writer

Sometimes we do the right thing. A little over two and a half years ago, officials from the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham and salmon advocacy groups like American Rivers and Long Live the Kings, worked together to remove the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam, opening up 16 miles of salmon spawning habitat and providing new hope for the river’s endangered salmon, including Chinook, for which our Southern Resident Orca are literally starving.

Why then, a citizen might ask, is Washington’s Department of Natural Resources proposing to log a rare, natural forest holding together a steep slope above the very spot where the dam was so encouragingly removed? 

The forest targeted for harvesting is called Brokedown Palace; a well-placed name. Fallen columns of 300-year-old cedars stretch along the forest floor beneath a wild diversity of mixed conifers, shrubs and snags, providing rare wildlife habitat while producing rich, moisture-holding soil. It’s exactly the kind of forest that salmon emerging through the newly opened passage will need above them, in winter absorbing rain and buffering flow extremes, in summer helping keep flows high, clear and cool. 

A key factor is the steepness of the slope which Brokedown Palace currently helps stabilize with its well-developed root structure. Looking across the river to the other side of the valley, one can see the risk that DNR is taking. That slope is scarred with erosion and landslides from timber harvesting done there four years ago. Even DNR acknowledges that the land beneath Brokedown Palace is “highly unstable” and “highly erodible.” With wetter winters forecasted due to global warming, Brokedown Palace, as it currently stands, is a veritable bulwark against erosion. 

So again, why is DNR proposing to harvest such an important forest? They would likely say in order to fulfill their trust mandate, a somewhat arcane arrangement dating back to 1889, by which the logging of state forests helps pay for the needs of school districts, among other beneficiaries. Yet, in fact, the amount is negligible, less than 1% of school construction. 

Ultimately, we face a deeper question. Is it acceptable to continue pitting kids against forests this way, according to rules that no longer make moral sense? Even Washington Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal calls it “a completely inappropriate construct.”

There is currently an opportunity in the new state budget to prevent this travesty. Gov. Jay Inslee has set aside money for forest protection as part of his climate effort, and there are legislative proposals to revitalize the Trust Land Transfer program, and to give DNR authority to raise revenue through alternate means such as carbon markets. That’s why organizations like the Center for Responsible Forestry, RE Sources, the Mount Baker Chapter of the Sierra Club and Conservation Northwest are calling for this sale to be, at the very least, paused to give these budgetary and legislative proposals a chance.  

To commemorate the dam removal, the City of Bellingham created a moving video called Healing the Nooksack. At the end, some sound words are given by Mayor Seth Fleetwood. We don’t just do a project like this and call it done. We also have to do the hard work of altering our relationship to the land, so that we can pass something on to future generations. 

Clearcutting what remains of older, natural forest right above where a dam was removed for the sake of critically endangered salmon is not how we alter our relationship with the land. It’s how we continue the old one that has brought us to this very precipice.

And it really is about a relationship. By taking down that dam we acknowledged one — with the river and the salmon to come. Those salmon will need a healthy river and a healthy river needs more than tree plantations. It needs healthy, original forests. You can’t heal the Nooksack by removing a dam alone. You have to protect the forests that cradle it.

Update note: DNR has recently paused the Brokedown Palace sale until the snow clears, allowing for further investigation of slope stability issues.

Rob Lewis is a poet, essayist, and environmentalist. He previously wrote about a proposed DNR timber sale in the Bessie Forest near Lake Whatcom. 

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