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Forestry leader retires to watch trees grow


Capital Press

CHEHALIS, Wash. -- After 10 years as executive director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, Rick Dunning says he will retire July 1 to take care of four F's: "Family, farm, faith and friends -- and fishing. That makes five."

He has been offered other positions, but he has sworn to make no commitments for at least six months. At 60 years old, with a background in construction and development and as owner of a retail lumberyard, "It's time to step off the treadmill."

Waiting for him is a 139-acre tree farm near the town of Yacolt, about halfway between Vancouver, Wash., and Mount St. Helens. He and his wife, Karen, bought the land from Weyerhaeuser in 1989, with an eye toward building a multi-generational business.

"It's a multi-age stand," he said. "We'll take (harvest) the 70-year-old trees -- that's our nest egg -- and 20 years from now, our kids will take the ones that are 30 years old now."

Leaving behind a 60-hour-a-week job, he said, he just wants to take time to marvel at what happens in the forest: "Every day the sun shines and the rain falls, the tree grows. I want to get out and enjoy the blessings we have."

Another thing that makes him wonder, he said, is that in the Evergreen State, in a land perfectly suited for growing trees, "It's a difficult state to be a forest landowner in."

Much of Dunning's work with the Farm Forestry Association has been dedicated to making tree farming workable. He has been active in lobbying at the state and federal levels, and he has seen attitudes shift somewhat.

At the federal level, for example, funding was secured to develop the Washington State Forestland Database. Parcel-based information was gathered from every county assessor, combining land ownership and land use with the physical characteristics of the land to develop economic, social and environmental metrics.

Each state agency concerned with natural resources used to gather its own information, but having a single source "saved the state probably hundreds of millions on dollars," he said.

"The federal government has a growing recognition that sustainable forestry is key to our environmental and economic success."

At the state level, however, that's not happening, he said. Washington has the most protective forest laws in the world, laws developed with landowners, environmental groups, tribes and government entities.

"It took a while to realize the impact of the Forest and Fish Law," Dunning said. "All the partners got what they wanted, but the promises to small forest landowners were unfulfilled."

Particularly frustrating to him is the Forest Riparian Easement Program, designed to compensate landowners for trees near riparian habitats that they are barred from harvesting. The Department of Natural Resources estimates it would cost about $10 million to fund the 89 applications on the waiting list, some of which have been waiting as long as four years.

"I hope they find ways to resolve it, to find permanent funding," he said. "The state knows we're valuable partners."

As Dunning leaves, he said, "There's a team of folks to replace me, people ... who have great vision and concepts to make this a great state for tree farmers."

Washington has 215,000 small forest landowners, who own 5.7 million acres of forestland, which is half of the private forestland in the state.


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