Washington DNR wants to ramp up forest thinning across the state


Momentum could be growing for more active management of Washington’s state-owned forests. After a record wildfire season last year, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is asking for $20 million over the next two years to thin forests and other forest fire protection, a leap over the $4 million that DNR got from the Legislature the last time it asked.

Washington DNR has long bemoaned the poor health of the state’s forests, especially in Eastern Washington, where the trees are wracked by insects and disease.

In the past five years, the state has spent about $200 million fighting wildfires, but only about $31 million trying to keep Washington’s forests healthy and less likely to burn.

While dry weather and repeated lightning strikes were part of what made the 2014 fire season so severe, the condition of the state’s forests also was to blame, (State Forester Aaron) Everett said.

“Our first line of defense is the condition of the forests,” Everett said. “Right now, our forests are stressed out.”

State officials estimate that about 30 percent of forests in Eastern Washington — about 2.7 million acres — need restoration treatments, such as thinning trees or planting fire- and insect-resistant ones. Government agencies, private landowners and timber companies only complete treatments on about 140,000 acres statewide per year, Everett said.

That has left many Washington forests crowded, filled with small trees and wood debris that fuel fires and make them burn hotter.

In the past, the Legislature has not given DNR nearly the full amount it’s requested for forest thinning, but this year lawmakers may be thinking differently.

“The forest health stuff is a no-brainer for me,” said state Rep. Brian Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “The fires are only going to get worse if we don’t do that.”

In a recent editorial, the Tacoma News Tribune supported increased funding for forest thinning.

Last summer was an anomaly when it came to wildfires in Washington. It may also have been a peek at the future.

Fires ravaged more than 410,000 acres last summer, compared to the average of 60,000 acres during the previous five years. One fire alone, the Carlton Complex, burnt about 256,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties.

Experts are projecting that the anomaly could look a lot like the norm as climate change creates warmer, dryer conditions in the years ahead. Unless more is done to make Washington’s forests less vulnerable to fire, the annual number of acres burned is expected to nearly double by the 2020s, according to a report Sunday by The News Tribune’s Melissa Santos.

The poor health of Washington’s forests is also very much a federal issue. As the News Tribune points out, “10 percent of Washington’s unhealthy forest acreage is managed by the state, while about 43 percent belongs to the federal government, 14 percent to tribes and 31 percent to private landowners.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, wrote in the Vancouver Columbian that the U.S. House in the last session actually approved legislation that would have increased active management of federal forests, along with an extension of payments to timber counties. But the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats, failed to move forward on the legislation.

Neither Congress nor forest communities ever wanted Secure Rural Schools to be anything more than a temporary fix. During this past session of Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation to necessarily extend Secure Rural School payments, but more importantly to also restore active forest management to responsible levels that would once again allow these communities to be self-sufficient. After all, these communities would jump at the chance to once again work the forests and abandon their dependence on federal assistance to keep schools open and police available.

Unfortunately, the Senate never acted on this bill and the 113th Congress came to a close without even a short-term reauthorization. Now, rural counties are entering 2015 in crisis mode.

Proposals to free up more federal money to fight wildfires and restore forests also failed in last year’s Congress. The federal inaction is so great that Washington DNR is asking the Legislature to help the U.S. Forest Service get federal thinning projects started.

Tired of waiting, state officials in Washington are asking the Legislature to contribute $2.3 million to help the federal government get some forest health projects off the ground.

“The Forest Service’s ability to plan these projects is actually the main bottleneck to getting them going,” Everett said. “What we’d be doing is creating a project plan — it’s not a project itself.”

If the state contributes project planning work, state officials estimate 30,000 additional acres of federal forests could be thinned or otherwise treated to help prevent fires in the next two years.