Rural communities rise up for active forest management


As state, local and federal leaders continue to take stock after this year’s horrendous wildfire season, the calls for more active management of our state and federal forests are getting louder and louder.The Ellensburg (Wash.) Daily Record recently published testimony in front of a U.S. Senate committee from Kittitas County Commissioner Gary Berndt. The commissioner spoke about the fires that regularly plague his community and how the only long-term answer is healthier, less crowded forests.

From Berndt’s testimony:

…The solution for the long term will also have to involve strategic timber harvest and stand thinning. Recently the Nature Conservancy purchased nearly 50,000 acres of timberland in our county and they acknowledge that forest management will be critical to achieving their goals including reducing the threat from fire.

Incident management teams are much more successful and cost effective when there are options to guide fire into managed areas with access and reduced fuels.

I believe that there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create solutions which will help prevent and drastically lessen the impact and numbers of fires we are enduring. A first step must be to establish a funding mechanism that does not “raid” funds for management activities to pay for suppression costs. Sen. Cantwell has discussed this and without the funds to carry on routine management activities, nothing will change.

I see communities across the West continue to be at peril from catastrophic fire impacts. I have managed fires where families have lost everything; I have worked my entire career to minimize the damage to forests watersheds and local economies. The solution is to better improve immediate response and management, but the real solution is to develop a plan of action that will create a fire resistant healthy forest environment.

The calls to make our forests healthier are coming from all sides, from business leaders, political leaders and environmental groups. The Olympian just ran an op-ed from Peter Goldmark, the Washington Public Lands Commissioner; Gene Duvernoy, president of the conservation group Forterra; and Mike Stevens, Washington director of The Nature Conservancy.

Here’s an excerpt:

Investing in the health of our forests and rivers reduces the impacts of climate change and encourages economic and community vitality. When well-stewarded, the Evergreen State’s lush forests naturally sequester millions of tons of carbon every year and help ensure abundant clean water for agricultural and growing communities.

As leaders in the field of natural resource conservation, the Department of Natural Resources, Forterra and The Nature Conservancy are working together for science-based, practical solutions to reduce the severity of fire, drought and flooding while creating jobs, reducing carbon pollution and strengthening communities.

A fundamental part of any climate policy must be dedicated investments in clean water and wildfire suppression; innovations in forest management, drought and flood risk reduction; and programs that fight forest parasites and disease, making forests more fire resistant.

The calls for active forest management aren’t just rising because of this summer’s fire season. For rural communities across Washington, the lack of forest management is a painful reminder that resonates in all times of year.

Recently, community leaders in Skamania County, Clallam County, Pacific County, Wahlkiakum County and Stevens County have all said their forests are woefully undermanaged. This hurts local economies, which are closely connected to the health of the forests.

In Skamania, citizens have become activists:

(Tom) Linde is part of a small group that calls itself Saving Skamania County. The self-funded, self-organized group aims to change the way forests, including the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, are managed. Members are trying to represent the local voices they feel have been largely overlooked in the decades-long debate over timber policy. Among their goals: More sustainable and predictable timber harvests that generate tax revenue for county services. Total harvest levels are a fraction of what they used to be, and Skamania County and other rural areas have suffered financially as a result.

“We are advocating for the forest and the community,” said Skamania County resident Tom Lannen. “We think there can be a balance. It’s not one side or the other.”

In Stevens County, Vaagen Brothers Lumber has found a way to make a living, but say the forests still have a long way to go.

Companies like Vaagen Brothers have tried to adapt to a new business model, logging under the rubric of “forest health” or “restoration.” By “thinning” small trees and leaving big ones intact, the Forest Service hopes to make forest more resilient to fire.

“We’ve kind of taken a page out of the environmental movement’s playbook,” (Duane) Vaagen says. “They say they don’t want to log but they’re ok to thin, so we’re not really a logging company. We’re a thinning company.”

…But Vaagen says there’s another factor at play for mills in the West: the long planning process required to log on public land. “Federal forests, their problem is NEPA”–the National Environmental Protection Act. “It takes them five to seven years to put some projects up for sale.”