Forestry issues get attention in Olympia

2017-02-18 Ashley Bach

It's heartening to see some focus at the Washington State Capitol during this year's legislative session on issues of forest health, active forest management and better fighting wildfires. We're seeing the momentum around the same time that the forestry and pulp and paper industries held their Forest Products Advocacy Day in Olympia.

Gov. Jay Inslee has called for more forest management, and the state Department of Natural Resources wants more projects to thin forests.

This year, DNR is asking lawmakers for $14 million to thin 30,000 acres over the next two years.

“We’re continuing to see an overall deterioration in the health of our forests, and it’s evident by the number of wildfires,” DNR forest health policy adviser Loren Torgenson said.

Another proposal would make it easier for DNR to sell fire-damaged timber, according to the Lens news site.  

HB 1710 seeks to limit (legal) appeals by exempting fire-damaged timber sales from provisions in the State Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and review under the Pollution Control Hearings Board per forest land practices. Business and logging industry spokespersons say more logging would provide a dual benefit by improving the wildfire resilience of state forestland while helping local rural communities regain lost economic activity.

The bipartisan bill’s chief sponsor is State Rep Joel Kretz (R-7). Cosponsors are State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19), Minority Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Joe Schmick (R-9), and State Rep. Cary Condotta (R-12).

More timber sales could be a boon for rural communities, advocates say.

Tim Boyd says more timber could be sold if frivolous appeals didn’t prevent the logging of that wood until the “window of opportunity is lost.” He is a lobbyist for Vaagen Brothers and Boise Cascade.

He told panel members that the loss of timber sales is “really a second tragedy for communities that have been impacted by wildfire. During the course of a bad fire season, DNR isn’t putting up any timber sales. They’re busy fighting fire. Logging is typically restricted during a bad fire season, even if there is wood to be harvested.”

The state’s lumber mills have dwindled over the last 50 years. In 1968, there were 493 mills. That number fell to 97 by 2014, when the most recent report was completed.

Wildfires only compound existing financial strains on those remaining mills, said Boyd.

According to Lens, the new state lands commissioner, Hilary Franz, who heads DNR, could be amenable to a solution.

HB 1710 proponents might find an ally in newly-elected Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who has named revitalizing local rural economies among her top priorities.

At a January 12 meeting of Agriculture and Natural Resources, she underscored to panel members the need to maximize public trust land revenue in order to revitalize rural communities dependent on lumber mills. She also noted the impacts to forest health restoration efforts in Central and Eastern Washington, where the lack of mills “makes it harder for us to actively manager our forests.”

“We are seeing communities with significantly depressed economies that continue to be struggling,” she said. “I believe Department of Natural Resources is a huge opportunity to be a part of the solution to those challenges.”

Boyd emphasized the need for “trust on all sides” for the exemptions under HB 1710 to work.  “Trust in our new lands commissioner and DNR experts that are responsible for managing the state trust land. We’ve seen the alternative leaving the wood out there. It hasn’t worked very well for us. We think it’s an opportunity to try something different.”