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When some people think of forestry of Washington they think about large timber companies, but in fact small forest landowners are a critical and overlooked part of the industry. Nonindustrial private forest landowners make up about 19 percent of forestland in the state. The smallest of this class, the family operations, can own anywhere from one to 3,000 acres. Many of these landowners maintain their tree farms on their own time and with their own sweat equity. And without their commitment to sustainable forestry and keeping their land as working forests, sadly there would be a lot more asphalt and concrete paving over our state's forests.
This is why it's so important to honor some of the best tree farmers in Washington every year. Not only does their hard work help support their families, often for many decades, but they play such a key role in keeping the state green and forested.
The Washington Farm Forestry Association and the Washington Forest Protection Association hand out the Washington Tree Farmer of the Year award every year. In 2013, a couple with a tree farm in Grays Harbor and Thurston counties won the award. In 2014, it was a couple who bought their Mason County tree farm in 1969.
The winners this year are Greg and Sue Pattillo, who own a 700-acre tree farm in Pacific County, near Raymond on the Washington coast. According to the announcement of their May 1 award, "numerous commercial thinnings and final harvests have provided (the Pattillos) their income for the last 26 years and have been (American Tree Farm System)-certified for 33 years. Both have been actively involved in forestry activities for many years. Greg, a retired forester, has been active in the Society of American Foresters and as an American Tree Farm Inspector. Together they have provided leadership for the Pacific County Chapter of Washington Farm Forestry Association for many years."
Vaagen Brothers Lumber is located in the small town of Colville in Northeast Washington, but its profile in the forestry industry now reaches far and wide. Vaagen Brothers was instrumental in spurring a spirit of collaboration between parties that don't always get along, both timber companies and environmental groups, along with federal, state and local leaders.
Vaagen helped bring all the disparate groups together to form the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called “a model for timber communities nationwide." More than just about anything, the partnership helped increase the timber harvest without costly litigation because all the groups were at the table from the beginning.
The collaboration helped pave the way for Vaagen Brothers to ink a 10-year contract to harvest timber on 55,000 acres of the Colville National Forest in a pilot project that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said is "designed to restore the forest, reduce the risk of forest fires and strengthen our rural economy."
The innovation led to Vaagen Brothers deservedly being honored this week by the Forest Resources Association (FRC), a Washington, D.C., trade group., with the 2015 National Outstanding Forestry Activist Award.
The Colville company's commitment to working with other interest groups was a notable success, according to the FRC:
Vaagen’s unwavering support for the (Northeast Washington Forestry) Coalition — in funds, personnel, travel, and participation in meetings with local, state and federal public officials — and collaboration with all Coalition members has resulted in the annual harvest on the Colville’s rising from 18 million board feet to 60 million. Vaagen Brothers has demonstrated the potential of “restoration forestry” on federal lands to stakeholders outside of the Coalition to showcase sound forestry practices and management, reduced wildfire risk, and increased wildlife habitat for Rocky Mountain elk, among other species. The result is, no stewardship projects were litigated or appealed to the point of stopping much-need forestry work since the Coalition’s inception.
The legacy of Billy Frank Jr. endures. The environmental, tribal and civil rights leader, truly a giant in U.S. and Washington state history, died in May 2014 at the age of 83. He is being remembered today in a resolution before Washington State's Senate.
Just in the last couple months, a Salmon Totem Pole was built in his honor on the Nisqually reservation, near Olympia. He was mentioned prominently, along with Marlon Brando, in a new song by Native American hip hop artist and author Gyasi Ross.
And those honors are just the tip of the iceberg. This week the Washington State Senate passed a resolution commemorating Frank and his impressive legacy. Several Senators stood in support of the resolution, and relayed personal experiences with Billy, reflecting on how committed he was to working together for sustainable working forests and healthy fish runs. His leadership will very much be missed.
Here is the full text:
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. of the Nisqually Tribe was an unflinching advocate for environmental protections in Washington and human rights for Native Americans, and he firmly believed in honoring and preserving the earth; and
WHEREAS, During the Fish Wars of the 60s and 70s, Indian Tribes were fighting for their right to fish in their own historical territories, a right that was guaranteed to them in the 19th century by the federal government; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. was arrested over 50 times for standing up for Native American treaty rights; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr.'s unwavering actions helped lead to the Boldt Decision, which established Indian Tribes in Washington as comanagers of the salmon resource and reaffirmed tribal rights to harvestable salmon; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. shaped Washington State as it is known today in not only advancing cooperative management over natural resources between tribes and the state, but also in the fight for equality for all people; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. supported Indian Tribes in Washington for over 30 years as chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which gave tribes a powerful voice to express their concerns to Washington, D.C.; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. was dignified with numerous humanitarian awards for his service, including the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, Washington State Environmental Excellence Award, and American Indian Distinguished Service Award, along with countless others; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. passed away on May 5, 2014, at the age of 83, and he was on that day, as on most days, on his way to a meeting about fish and tribal treaty rights; and
WHEREAS, Washington must continue to remember Billy Frank Jr.'s legacy, his passion, and the strides he made to defend and protect his tribe, his country, and our earth; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. stressed the importance of both the spiritual and cultural ties of salmon to indigenous people throughout Washington and the nation; and
WHEREAS, Through his lifetime of kinship with the natural world, Billy Frank Jr. helped create a healthy environment that can sustain salmon, achieved change, and brought diverse and divergent communities together around shared desires through nonviolent means; and
WHEREAS, Billy Frank Jr. spent his entire life bringing together those with diverse ideologies and backgrounds around a shared passion for sustainability
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Washington State Senate honor Billy Frank Jr. and the impact he had on tribes, the state, the nation, and the earth, and now let him inspire all of us to carry on his legacy.
Peter Goldmark isn't happy with the state of affairs when it comes to Washington wildfire funding. The state Public Lands Commissioner requested from the Legislature $20 million over two years to thin forests and other wildfire protection, but so far, state lawmakers are balking. The House proposed biennial budget includes just $5 million for forest thinning, while the Senate budget has no money for thinning.
Goldmark is also asking for an additional $4.5 million to fight the wildfires when they happen, but the House is proposing just $2.5 million and the Senate nothing.
This is disappointing, especially given that just this week Gov. Jay Inslee expanded the state emergency drought declaration from a handful of counties to almost half the state. The state's snowpack is just 22 percent of normal, which is a record for April. The drier the ground, the easier wildfires start.
It's no surprise, then, that Goldmark is working hard to make sure the state understands the dire consequences if firefighting crews don't have enough money to fight fires, or state-owned forests aren't actively managed to make them less suspectible to fire. In the last few weeks, he's done interviews with KING 5, KIRO 7 and the Vancouver Columbian. Earlier in the year, the Tacoma News Tribune editorial board came out in favor of Goldmark's request for $20 million for forest thinning, and this week the Columbian editorial board came out in support as well, having this to say:
When it comes to wildfires, an old axiom applies: We can pay for them now or pay for them later. What isn't included in that saw, however, is the idea that paying for wildfires later will greatly increase the price.
The U.S. Forest Service is planning to essentially throw out the Northwest Forest Plan after 21 years. As we noted earlier this year, the tide seems to be turning (ever so slowly) among even some Democrats that the federal timber harvest is woefully inadequate to support rural communities. Once the changes are complete, the Northwest Forest Plan, the source of so much misery in timber towns, will cease to exist, at least in its current form.
In November 2014, the Forest Service briefed representatives of industry, local government and conservation on its intent to revise the (Northwest Forest Plan), as required by the National Forest Management Act. Jim Peña, the Northwest regional forest supervisor, said the Northwest Forest Plan will no longer exist as an umbrella document that applies to all forests equally. Instead, its principles -- but not necessarily its specific strategies -- will be embedded into the planning documents of each of the 19 forest units.
...Under the new plans, the timber industry expects to gain access to more timber than it has since the Northwest Forest Plan first took effect, said Ann Forest Burns, a vice-president of the Portland-based industry group, the American Forest Resource Council. She added that the industry's allocation has been half or less of the 1.1 billion annual board feet promised in the original plan. If the new forest plans fails to provide enough timber, she said, "we will ask Congress to change the law." That could include two 1970s-era mandates, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Of course, there are still many unanswered questions about how the new forest plans will emerge. And environmental groups no doubt will also be lobbying to limit timber harvests even more than they are now. Already the timber industry and rural communities had to speak up in order to get the Forest Service to hold local meetings about the proposed plan revisions.
The Forest Service last month held three "listening sessions," in Portland, Seattle and Redding, Calif. Rural leaders in Oregon and Washington complained that they could not make the sessions because they were in large cities far from loggers and rural towns. Not surprisingly, the listening session in Portland was filled with environmentalists, with few timber voices able to attend.
This week, the Forest Service took note and announced that it would hold listening sessions in all 19 national forests and seven Bureau of Land Management units affected by the Northwest Forest Plan. The first of those sessions was scheduled for April 27 in Corvallis, Ore.
In pure numbers, forestry in Washington produces far more trees than it harvests - for every tree harvested, three are planted in its place. Private forest landowners are more aggressive in reforestation than the 3-year time frame that state law requires, replanting trees in 12-18 months before wild plants can swoop in.
Reforestation doesn't get mentioned much by those who oppose timber harvests because for them, it's an inconvienent fact, but planting millions of trees is a critical part of modern forestry. In Washington alone, 52 million trees are planted each year. In the U.S., 1.43 billion seedlings are shipped by forest nurseries for replanting in U.S. forests.
A video from the Washington Forest Protection Association summed it up well:
Forest landowners, who supply us with wood and paper products, want to get the new forest up and growing as fast as they can. Trees are a renewable resource and reforestation helps make sure future generations will have forests just like we have, providing jobs and wood products, clean air and water and wildlife habitat.
This commitment to sustainable forestry was on full display this week with a special ceremony in Mason County, Wash. Seattle's Green Diamond Resource Company, which was founded 125 years ago as S.G. Simpson & Company, celebrated the planting of its 100 millionth tree.
Green Diamond didn't start counting the number of trees it planted until 1943, so the number of new trees could be even greater.
In the midst of a 40-acre clearcut Wednesday just east of Taylor Towne in Mason County, about 75 people with ties to the state’s timber industry watched Green Diamond Resource Company Chairman Colin Moseley plant what was proudly called the family-owned forestry company’s 100 millionth tree.
Moseley had some help on this milestone occasion from two Democratic congressmen: Denny Heck of Olympia and Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor. Green Diamond’s 323,000 acres of South Sound timberland spill over into both Heck’s 10th District and Kilmer’s 6th District and Heck was quick to point out that the tree planting was happening in his district.
The Douglas fir seedling that gained so much attention was surrounded by about 16,000 slightly larger Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine trees that were planted in 2011 on the 40-acre parcel, which was harvested in 2010. On all four sides of the reforested area, Green Diamond timber stood in age classes ranging from 15 years old to 80 years old., symbolizing the fact that the company, which began as S.G. Simpson & Company has been around a long, long time — since 1890 to be exact.
CNN this week covered the trend of tall, modern wood buildings being constructed in countries around the world. As so many countries, cities, architects and developers are discovering, tall buildings can now be built with a type of wood called cross-laminated timber (CLT) that is much more efficient, attractive and environmentally friendly than concrete or steel.
Quoted in the CNN story is British Columbia architect Michael Green, an innovator in CLT who starred last year in a series of wood-building videos sponsored by the Washington Forest Protection Association, the Washington Contract Loggers Association, the Family Forest Foundation and the Washington Farm Forestry Association.
(Green) said news of taller wooden structures is sprouting up all the time.
"There seems to be a new announcement every two or three weeks," Green said. "We've got one in Vancouver for 18 stories and in Vienna there's one for more than 20 stories.
"We've done research in high earthquake zones that show 30 stories is feasible; we certainly think we can go to 40 and higher."
Green is right. Do an online search for cross-laminated timber, and projects are being announced about every week. A factory in British Columbia. A summer house in Quebec. A 10-story high-rise in England that claims to be the largest CLT building in the world.
The Northwest is also fertile ground. SmartLam, located in Whitefish, Mont., says it's the first CLT distributor and manufacturer in the U.S., and this month it announced plans to expand its plant to be the largest CLT plant in the world.
Sunday, March 22 marks the one-year anniversary of the Oso, Wash., landslide that killed 43 people and had a severe impact on several Snohomish County communities, including Darrington, Arlington and Oso itself. The communities will honor the anniversary with a series of events and remembrances this weekend.
The focus is on healing, but according to local leaders, true recuperation will take a long time.
It’s impossible, locals say, to remove dozens of people — in an instant — from a small community and expect things ever to return to normal.
“Every family, every survivor, is on an individual journey,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor of both Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney Mission in Darrington. “Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.”
One of the things that's giving the local communities strength is that they came together so well in the wake of the disaster. It was locals, many of them loggers, who were the first on the scene of the landslide, rescuing survivors. And it was locals who banded together to support each other in the weeks and months after the disaster, even while rescue crews were still working on the recovery at the site of the slide.
This week, the communities of Darrington, Arlington and Oso and the Sauk-Suiattle tribe received the state Medal of Valor for their heroism in the rescue and community building after the slide. It was an honor well deserved.
The relatively balmy winter in the Northwest may have made it comfortable to be outside, but it's done no favors for this year's wildfire season.
The warmer, drier conditions have already led in the past week to a 100-acre fire in Eastern Oregon and a 150-acre fire south of Spokane. The Eastern Washington fire in particular, as well as smaller fires nearby, has fire officials worried.
Brush fires and wildland fires are typically rare this time of year, and a fire this large this early in the season is even rarer, (said Spokane County Fire District 3 Duty Officer Arron Hess).
“The last two winters have been very, very mild,” he said. “If things do continue this way it could be a very long (fire) season.”
Firefighters in Stevens County Fire District 1 also responded to a brush fire on Bluebird Way in the Suncrest area Saturday, though it was only about 2 acres in size. The district also responded to a small brush fire about two weeks ago, which caught firefighters by surprise.
“This is the earliest anyone can recall,” the district posted on its Facebook page after the first fire.
Lawsuits are a difficult subject in forestry. Some environmental groups see lawsuits as a necessary method, while timber leaders grow frustrated with how the legal challenges slow down what is already a relatively paltry federal timber harvest.
The debate is especially heated in Montana right now, but lawsuits over timber harvests have also been reported twice (here and here) just in the last 10 days in Washington State, so no forested Western state is immune from the issue.
In Montana, both U.S. senators (Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester) have been holding workshops and town halls around the state the past month to discuss ways to get the federal timber harvest going, not just in Montana but around the country. Tester received some flak from environmental groups for overestimating the number of lawsuits in a radio interview, but the message from both senators was clear: we need to get the timber harvest going.
The lawsuits aren't just stopping the timber harvests they challenge - they have a chilling effect on other harvests as well.
The Northwest Forest Plan is the troubled legacy that haunts both the timber industry and environmental groups. Neither side was happy with the plan when it was approved 21 years ago, and neither side has a clean sheet two decades later.
Environmentalists defend the plan, but even they have to admit that the plan did nothing to save the spotted owl, which is doing worse than ever before. The environmental groups also have a hard time defending the abject poverty that the Forest Plan created in rural communities across the West. The timber industry, meanwhile, was hit hard by the massive reduction in the federal timber harvest caused by the plan, which never produced even its promised timber yield, let alone anything resembling the harvest levels before the plan went into effect.
In the last couple years, the pendulum -- however slowly -- seems to be swinging back the other direction. Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and even some Democrats are recognizing that the federal timber harvest is woefully inadequate to support our rural counties. Several bills have advanced in Congress to create more active management of federal forests, though none have yet to be signed into law.
And now the Northwest Forest Plan itself, long in the tooth after 20 years, may be in its death throes.
Environmental writer Paul Koberstein writes in the Portland Tribune this month that the U.S. Forest Service (controlled by a Democratic president) is planning to revise the Northwest Forest Plan or even ditch it altogether.
Can environmental groups and the forestry industry co-exist? It's a question still relevant two decades after the timber wars fought over the spotted owl and Northwest Forest Plan. And it's a question still being asked by leaders from the environmental and forestry communities, as well as federal, state and local political leaders.
Strictly speaking, the answer to the question is yes. Of course, environmental groups and the forestry industry exist and will continue to exist, despite their sometimes divergent views. The real question is, can environmentalists and the forestry industry both get what they want? Can they both accomplish their goals? Is there a middle ground that will allow them both to thrive?
Some of these questions came up during a recent talk by Glenn Lamb, the director of the Columbia Land Trust, a Vancouver, Wash., conservation group. Lamb, who was speaking in Astoria, Ore., is the head of an environmental group that is interested not in lawsuits but in buying forestland from willing sellers and often keeping that land in forestry.
Here's what we wrote in December about a major land deal Columbia Land Trust and Pope Resources brokered near Mount St. Helens:
(In the deal) announced this week, Poulsbo's Pope Resources is selling development rights to 3,095 acres of forestland near Mount St. Helens to Columbia Land Trust, a Vancouver conservation group. The vast majority of the land (2,885 acres) will stay in active forestry.
The transaction is the third of a four-stage deal that will eventually protect 20,000 acres of forestland near Swift Reservoir in Skamania County from development. (We wrote about the second stage, Pope's sale of 2,330 acres to Columbia Land Trust, last year.)
"This landmark project shows what can be achieved when a timber company, a conservation group and public leaders put their heads together to find lasting conservation solutions that benefit both people and nature," Columbia Land Trust Executive Director Glenn Lamb said in a released statement.
The forestry industry is well aware that it needs to get younger as many of its leading professionals age without enough replacements on the way among Millennials, Generation Y or Generation X.
One of the most promising avenues to reach this critical audience is logging shows. Teenagers and 20-somethings, many of whom were already interested in working in outdoor and rural settings, jump at the chance to compete in logging competitions and prove their worth among their peers.
Earlier this month, the Astoria Timber Festival kicked off in the Oregon coastal town, and reading the media coverage of the event, it's hard not to be uplifted about the spirit and enthusiasm of the forestry industry's future leaders.
The Oregonian wrote three stories about the one-day festival: about how the young lumberjacks will help the industry, an exploration of the various logging competitions and how teenage female competitors are shattering industry stereotypes:
Some in the industry openly question the work ethic of the youth. They just aren't hard workers, they say, they just don't have the drive.
But judging by the crowd of hard-working teenage lumberjacks - and lumberjills - competing at the Astoria Timber Festival and Job Fair on Saturday, there's good reason to disbelieve that broad generalization.
The focus of this weekend's timber festival was the logging competitions themselves, featuring three local high school teams, from Knappa High School, Vernonia High School and Clatskanie Middle and High School.
Not a strict competition, like the number of events they travel to around the state, the Astoria Timber Festival is more of a demonstration of what these kids can do. And as it turns out, their skills are good enough to make the local timber industry send recruiters in to snag them.
Wildfire prevention is a big topic in Olympia right now. We wrote recently about the state Department of Natural Resources' request for $20 million over two years to thin forests and protect them from fires, and while that's still under debate, the Legislature is also considering several bills that would give more power to local residents to fight wildfires on state land.
The legislation came about as some Central Washington leaders and landowners testified to a House committee about the impact of last year's Carlton Complex Fire, which burned 256,000 acres.
The bills will likely be combined into one piece of legislation, and are not without opponents.
House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said after the hearing he wants to combine policy changes that have a chance of passing into a single bill.
Legislation may run into opposition from DNR and the union representing DNR employees. Department and union representatives told the committee they will work on legislation, but did not support the bills (Reps. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and Shelly Short, R-Addy) introduced.
Some lawmakers expressed concern that letting landowners take the initiative will result in lawsuits or amateurish actions that make fires worse.
Okanogan County rancher Vic Stokes assured lawmakers that landowners have experience battling blazes.
“We’re quite capable of fighting fires,” he said. “The knowledge is passed on from generation to generation.”
Congress didn't get much done in the waning days of its session last year, especially on timber issues, and nothing was felt more strongly than the lack of action taken on the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program. For the last 15 years, the program has sent federal subsidies to timber counties hurt by the decline in the federal timber harvest, which was in turn caused by the listing of the spotted owl and other factors.
The SRS program is a critical lifeline for rural counties across the country, but especially in timber states. Congress declined to extend the payments for 2015. There are multiple explanations for this, including that some lawmakers held out because they wanted timber reform measures that would actually increase the federal harvest as opposed to just extending the payments. Laudable as this goal may be, the counties have yet to receive any SRS money for this year and it's having a huge impact on their budgets.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service announced that without SRS, the timber counties will receive money under a 1908 law that gives money to timber counties but until recently had been superceded by SRS. Problem is, the money paid under the 1908 law is much, much lower than what the counties would have received under Secure Rural Schools.
Here's how the Associated Press described the drop in key Western states:
Forest Service payments to Oregon counties drop from $67.9 million to $5.9 million; California, from $35.6 million to $8.7 million; Idaho, from $28.3 million to $2 million; Washington, from $21.5 million to $2.1 million; and Montana, from $21.3 million to $2 million.
The future of the forestry industry depends on cultivating the next generation of foresters, and on that note, we have some positive developments in the Northwest this month.
The good news rolled in this week with the announcement from Washington State University that it will restart its forestry major after a four-year hiatus. The major was shut down because of budget cuts and will now be revived beginning this fall, with the support of the Legislature and industry leaders.
WSU's restart of the major comes, not coincidentally, as the number of forestry jobs starts to swing upward.
The job market for foresters has improved in recent years, said (Keith Blatner, program leader for forestry at WSU and a WSU professor). The number of lumber and pulp and paper mills has declined, but the remaining mills are larger and more automated, Blatner said. Timber firms, consulting firms and governmental and non-governmental organizations all need foresters, he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of restructuring in the way lands are held and managed, but there’s still a demand for foresters out there to do the work,” Blatner said. “It’s a different mix of employers than we used to have.”
For the forestry major to be viable, WSU hopes for at least 100 certified majors within the next few years. Forestry students need a good foundation in biology, chemistry, college-level algebra, introductory calculus, statistics, communication skills and computer applications, Blatner said.
“It’s always important that our students be field-ready when they graduate,” he said. “We’ll be stressing having students get some professional experience through summer jobs so they are very comfortable on the ground when they graduate.”
It's not often that advocates get an hour in front of the Washington Legislature to celebrate the success of the historic Forests & Fish Law, but that's exactly what happened this week. Leaders from the timber industry, environmental community and state, county and tribal governments commemorated the 15th anniversary of one of the toughest sets of environmental regulations in the country. The presentation in front of a joint hearing of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee (video here) was an expanded version of a similar discussion at the Washington Forest Protection Association's (WFPA) annual meeting two months ago.
Speakers included Mark Doumit, executive director of WFPA; Joseph Pavel, Council Vice-Chair and natural resources director for the Skokomish Indian Tribe; Jay Manning, president of the Washington Environmental Council; Joe Stohr, deputy director of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties; Stephen Bernath, senior policy adviser for the Washington Department of Ecology; Aaron Everett, the Washington state forester; and Ken Miller of the Washington Farm Forestry Association.
The broad cross-section of speakers was no accident, as the Forests & Fish Law only works because a wide range of stakeholders came together for a common goal. Doumit said during the hearing that "these are people who have not always gotten along" but that they united for the new law in 1999 because they knew how important it was to protect fish and maintain clean water.
"It's a model of collaboration; it is a model of working together that we fully support," said Manning, from the Washington Environmental Council.
"The (timber) industry voluntarily stepped up (in 1999) to a rigorous set of (environmental) standards, some of the most rigorous in the world," Manning added. "They should get credit for that and we have tried to give them credit for that."
Momentum could be growing for more active management of Washington's state-owned forests. After a record wildfire season last year, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is asking for $20 million over the next two years to thin forests and other forest fire protection, a leap over the $4 million that DNR got from the Legislature the last time it asked.
Washington DNR has long bemoaned the poor health of the state's forests, especially in Eastern Washington, where the trees are wracked by insects and disease.
In the past five years, the state has spent about $200 million fighting wildfires, but only about $31 million trying to keep Washington’s forests healthy and less likely to burn.
While dry weather and repeated lightning strikes were part of what made the 2014 fire season so severe, the condition of the state’s forests also was to blame, (State Forester Aaron) Everett said.
“Our first line of defense is the condition of the forests,” Everett said. “Right now, our forests are stressed out.”
State officials estimate that about 30 percent of forests in Eastern Washington — about 2.7 million acres — need restoration treatments, such as thinning trees or planting fire- and insect-resistant ones. Government agencies, private landowners and timber companies only complete treatments on about 140,000 acres statewide per year, Everett said.
That has left many Washington forests crowded, filled with small trees and wood debris that fuel fires and make them burn hotter.
In the past, the Legislature has not given DNR nearly the full amount it's requested for forest thinning, but this year lawmakers may be thinking differently.
Two major land deals that will preserve working forests in Washington moved forward in the last few days, and Washington timber companies are at the heart of both transactions.
Plum Creek Timber Co.'s sale of 48,000 acres of forestland along Interstate 90 in Washington (as well as 117,000 acres in the Blackfoot River Valley in Montana) just became final last week. (We first wrote about the deal last month.) The Nature Conservancy takes over both the Washington and Montana land, which the group says it will still use, at least in part, for timber production.
James Schroeder, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy, told the Kittitas County Public Lands Advisory Committee on Monday that there will be a series of public meetings regarding the use of the land and recreation access, with the first expected to be scheduled for February.
“We want to get people’s input on developing our management and recreation plan moving forward,” Schroeder said.
...The goal is to have a recreation and land-use management plan in place by June or July, so the Nature Conservancy can apply for timber harvest permits. It plans to do both commercial and noncommercial harvests.
“We’ve projected out 10 years annual harvest and we are hoping we can make it pencil out,” Schroeder said. “We’re not looking at this as a moneymaker. We’d put money back into restoration if it does pencil out.”
There was some momentum for this post-election "lame duck" session of Congress on timber issues. Namely, Republicans will be taking over the Senate next month, and so Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had only weeks to make his mark before he lost his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. Wyden has been trumpeting his bill on Oregon timber reform (which would likely steer the national debate) for more than a year, and he also has a bill to change the way forest firefighting is paid for that could free up money for timber restoration.
Out of desperation, innovation, right?
Not so fast. Wyden's bill, which would increase the harvest in some timber counties, was opposed by many timber groups and some environmentalists, and even with the added urgency, Wyden's bill failed to get enough support before Congress adjourned for the year this week.
The Oregonian editorial board this month cited Wyden's failed bill, as well as another Oregon timber harvest proposal from Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader:
It's tempting to give Wyden, as well as the three Oregon congressmen who championed the House bill, credit for working hard in a difficult political environment. But there are two big problems with accepting one more failure as a necessary step toward eventual success: Rural Oregon has been waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... for decades. And, the Oregon delegation will be operating with less political clout next year as Republicans test out their new power.