Forest restoration in Washington still needs funding to succeed


A new study from the U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy reveals that 3.5 million acres of forestland in Eastern Washington is overcrowded with small, fire-prone trees and needs to be restored. The study comes on the heels of Gov. Jay Inslee designating 720,000 acres of federal forestland in Eastern Washington for expedited and prioritized forest restoration.

As we’ve written many times, Washington’s federal forests are woefully mismanaged, which in turn has allowed the trees to become infested by insects and disease and vulnerable to large wildfires. The Forest Service study and Inslee’s forest designation will add more momentum to the cause of active forest management and getting our state’s forests back to good health.

But they are also two steps on a long road. The study from the Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy highlights the depth of the problem, but policy changes, along with more funding, are needed to get the forests restored.

…While the recent study for the first time identifies the extent of need, no comprehensive plan exists for tackling the enormous, ongoing problem.

In recent years, state, federal, tribal and private forest managers in Eastern Washington have reduced density on about 145,000 acres annually, according to a report the (state) DNR prepared for the Legislature. That’s commercial logging and restoration-focused work, referred to together as “active management” because it’s the opposite of leaving the forests to fend for themselves.

That’s just 4 percent of the acres that need it, according to the new study. Lead scientist Ryan Haugo of The Nature Conservancy said the study used computer models to compare current forest conditions to ideal conditions, based on what the forest looked like before people began cutting down the biggest trees and putting out wildfires.

Natural forests typically have a mix of old-growth stands, young stands recovering for a recent disturbance, such as a wildfire, and medium-aged stands in between.

Most of the forest should have a more open tree canopy, but some dense areas are good as well. The goal is to get the right mix, Haugo said.

Right now, he said, Eastern Washington has too many dense and young forests. His study recommends three treatments: thinning, prescribed fire and time to allow some forests to grow older. All the landowners — state, federal, tribal and private — need to work together to build a better balance for the long-term, Haugo said.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review editorial board says Congress needs to approve a bill from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would change the way fighting wildfires is funded and free up more money for forest restoration. The paper also says Congress should allocate more money for forest collaboratives that push active forest management through in local communities.

To end the cycle of decreased treatments and increased fires, Congress will need to budget smarter. It certainly doesn’t have money to burn.

Meanwhile, the designation from Gov. Inslee is an exciting development, but the federal bill that helped make the designation possible didn’t provide any additional funding for the federal forests to be managed.

Earlier this month, Inslee requested 720,000 acres, including parts of the Naches and Cle Elum Ranger districts. The Forest Service manages 4.8 million acres in Eastern Washington, about half of the region’s forest land.

The designated lands would be eligible for a streamlined environmental review process, which could speed up planning, said (State Forester Aaron Everett). But while Congress approved the program, it did not provide any extra funding for additional forest restoration.

“The Forest Service is going to be hard pressed to hit the pace of restoration we’d like to see without additional resources,” Everett said.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has been much more active in keeping state forests healthy than the feds have on their land. But Aaron Everett of DNR says the agency needs more money from the Legislature, and that Washington should take a more holistic approach than just focusing on federal funding. This includes convincing homeowners in the forests to clear their land and helping spur businesses that can use the wood from forest thinning.

For the upcoming (legislative) session, Everett said the DNR plans to ask for more funding, $20 million for the biennium for forest restoration.

“I think the devastating wildfire season we had this year is another grim reminder that we need to get on top of this problem,” Everett said. “We’ve had great support from the Legislature so far.”

But, he added that the taxpayers can’t cover the cost of all the work that needs to be done. The goal is that by supporting the development of new businesses in the area that use small trees and wood chips as a raw materials, the forest health work can become cost-effective.

“This can’t be done on public dollars forever, so we’re counting on a strong pulse of activity to rebuild restoration economy, and that way the (restoration) work becomes self-perpetuating,” Everett said.