Washington charts a course on forest health

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Lens News dives into the growing momentum in Washington to make our forests healthier and less susceptible to wildfires. In reporter TJ Martinell’s story is a healthy dose of quotes and discussion from the Washington Forest Protection Association 2018 Annual Meeting in Olympia earlier this month.

In fall 2017, the state Department of Natural Resources unveiled a 20-year forest plan “with a bold goal of restoring 1.25 million acres of forest to healthy conditions, increasing fire resilience and better protecting our communities.” The head of DNR, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, spoke about the forest plan at the WFPA meeting:

“We’re going to have to be making sure we’re setting up our state for long-term success with the key resources that we know we need. Money to just fight fires isn’t going to solve this problem by itself. It’s frankly a band-aid. When we do these forest health treatments, we’re actually able to make revenue that helps not only ensure we’re reducing our fires, but we can actually strengthen our local economies.”

As part of its 20-year forest health strategy, DNR is currently working on “planning areas” ranging from 38,000 to 200,000 acres; 12 planning areas are scheduled for release as part of the 2018 cycle. The state agency has already selected 22 additional planning areas encompassing 1.5 million acres of forestland. The parameters of those areas are drawn according to a “watershed approach” that Franz described as “agonistic to property lines.”

DNR Planner Chuck Hersey told Lens that the forestland is evaluated for wildfire risk, potential changes due to drought and its current vegetation compared to historic conditions. Once the plans are completed, the landowners are left to decide if and when to implement them.

“The real challenge with the 20-year plan is we’re trying to get a critical mass of treatment,” he said. “If you only treat 10-20 percent of parcels, you’re not going to change wildfire as much.”

WFPA Executive Director Mark Doumit told Lens that his members are already doing much of what DNR proposes to do in its 20-year forest plan.

“Most of my members use their own resources to take care of their land,” he said. “They are more aggressive with their harvest and thus they’re managing the land fairly frequently. They have them on a harvest and management scheme that’s similar to where DNR is trying to take those state lands.”

That revenue-driven strategy helps incentivize WFPA members such as Hancock Forest Management to maintain the 240,000 acres of working forests in Washington state it manages on behalf of investors. At the WFPA annual meeting, Northeast Washington Region Manager J.D. Marshall said they plan to plant two million trees next year to help restore forests affected by wildfires.

“When folks invest in land with us (and) through us, they’re obviously looking for a return on investment, and that’s what we provide,” he said.

Marshall is also a member of (DNR’s) Wildland Fire Advisory Committee.

Washington tribes are also active in keeping their forests healthy, as Lens News writes.

Regardless of the treatment method, the (forest health plans in Washington) underscore the importance of actively managing the forests. Cody Desautel is the natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which treats 10,000 acres a year. He is also a member of the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee.

For the tribes, their focus is on the connection between forestland and fish and game habitat, as well as revenues generated for tribal members from the 75-80 million board feet of timber harvested annually.

“Having infrastructure and (mill) capacity nearby is very, very important,” he said.

At the WFPA meeting, Desautel said that work done by the tribes over the last 30 years has helped improve the wildlife habitat, and though it hasn’t reduced the acreage burned by wildfires, he noted that fires within those areas are less severe.

We wrote a couple years ago about the Spokane Tribe making the floor of the U.S. Senate with an extraordinary time-lapse video showing the efficiency of the tribe’s forest fuel reduction program in the face of a wildfire.

Watch video and read more highlights from the 2018 WFPA Annual Meeting.