How should federal timber reform look?


As wildfires rage in California, Arizona and Montana, Wenatchee World columnist Tracy Warner is wondering when the inevitable shoe will drop in Washington.

You might have noticed from the headlines we are entering our region’s wildfire-a-day phase, or very close to it. Early in the season, it’s clumsy accidents in the dry brush. Later we move up to stupid fireworks tricks, followed by lightning strikes in the brittle forest. We live with hope that we will avoid a third straight year of terrible conflagration, destruction and death. Cross your fingers.

Warner is right to be wary. Unfortunately our state’s forests are in such poor health because of a lack of active management that a horrible wildfire season is nearly inevitable. At least our state’s firefighters are ready.

State Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark testified in Congress last week in support of legislation that would end the U.S. Forest Service practice of “fire borrowing” — raiding other parts of the agency’s budget to pay for record wildfires. The bill also includes a “pine pilot,” a pilot fire fuel reduction project. (We wrote earlier this month about the legislation.)

From Goldmark’s testimony:

“For too many years, investments in forest health, thinning and fuel reduction have not kept pace with the amount of risk on the landscape.

“We know what we need to do to allow Washington to remain the Evergreen State. We must aggressively treat and manage our forests, using fuel-reduction treatments and prescribed burning when appropriate.

“There is broad community and scientific support for accelerated forest restoration. I encourage you to develop the pine-pilot concept discussed in (the draft bill), to achieve faster restoration.

“We depend on our forests for clean water, wildlife habitat, jobs and carbon storage. They are a resource to conserve and protect, not to squander.”

Nick Smith advocates for the end of fire borrowing as well. But Smith, the executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a group that supports active federal forest management, said this week that it’s not nearly enough.

To even come close to achieving forest restoration goals in our lifetimes, the (Forest Service) needs the policy and legal tools to increase the pace and scale of forest projects today.

To do this, Congress must address the primary factors limiting the management of our national forests.  Often times, forest management is constrained by litigation and the cost and time required for the Forest Service to satisfy well-intended but burdensome compliance requirements.  After a forest project is developed, it can take the Forest Service as long as three years before a single tree is removed.  Policies that expedite work on vulnerable forests can not only reduce the severity of wildfires, it can provide climate benefits long after the work is completed.

…We should empower our federal land managers to improve the health of our forests, reduce carbon emissions and protect their environmental and economic benefits for future generations.  Rather than hand wringing over the “new normal,” it’s time for policy makers to pursue sensible solutions that make our forests more resilient to the impacts of wildfire and climate change.