Lands Commissioner makes push for Wash. forest thinning


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.

Because of that, good forest management and strong fire prevention should be considered an investment. Yes, they can be costly — but not as costly as the alternative. As Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, said last week in a meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board: “An investment now can help reduce a huge cost. Once the fires get big, they become enormously expensive.”

…More important than fire suppression, lawmakers should provide funding for wildfire prevention and for healthy forests. The federal government has provided an abject lesson in how poor fiscal planning can backfire, as it frequently draws from fire-prevention funds in order to fight wildfires and creates a cycle of having to fight even larger fires the following year.

Other supporters of the forest thinning funding request told the Yakima Herald-Republic that the $20 million would also help homeowners clear their land to protect them from fires. The money is about preventing the spread of wildfires before they start.

The forest health funding includes money for fuels reduction work on state lands and for grants to provide training and cost-sharing support to help small private landowners reduce fire risks on their properties.

The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Washington forests director in Yakima, Reese Lolley, said that if the state spent more on improving forest health now, it would lighten the impact of devastating wildfires on communities, natural resources and the state budget in the future.

Suzanne Wade, the fire-adapted community coordinator for the Kittitas County Conservation District, said the funding is critical to helping landowners protect their homes.

“On the Taylor Bridge fire, we had worked with six landowners on perimeter of the fire and their houses survived. There would be one house sitting there where the landowner treated the whole property that survived and the homes on either side had burned to the ground,” Wade said. “It’s a system that works,” Wade said.