Senate Ups Ante On Combating Forest Fires

Senate Ups Ante On Combating Forest Fires
A U.S. Senate draft bill includes a pilot project focused on more adequately reserving funds for wildfire prevention in fire-prone national forests like Okanogan-Wenatchee, seen here. Photo: National Forest Foundation.

Washington’s private forest landowners want healthier federal forest lands to help confront the growing severity of wildfire seasons. A quarter of the 8.1 million acres of federal forests in the state needs some restoration, according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Costly wildfires have forced the agency to use money that would have otherwise paid for thinning, debris-clearing and other forest health projects in states like Washington.

This is sometimes called “fire-borrowing.” It underscores the need for better budgeting to try to prevent more wildfires, and the need for using dedicated – not borrowed – funds to fight them when prevention fails.

Five U.S. Senators are in the early process of crafting legislation that seeks to safeguard funding for forest health while also providing adequate money for firefighting.

A Dangerous Excess Of Wildfire Fuel

Restoration projects can help reduce wildfire risk in various ways. These include forest-thinning, where trees are too closely clustered, or removing wood debris on the forest floor where lack of thinning has caused some trees to die and fall over. Both scenarios can contribute to a dangerous excess of “fuel” for wildfires, which may be sparked by natural causes such as lightning, or humans. Firefighting on federal land in Washington is handled jointly between the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and USFS.

Bill Would Create A Special Reserve Fund

The draft Senate bill is called the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act of 2016.” It would set up a rainy day fund each year that could be used to pay for wildfires, only after the entire USFS firefighting budget is exhausted. In 2017, the fund would have $1.4 billion, and that amount would increase every year. During years with milder wildfire seasons, USFS could use leftover firefighting funds for forest health projects.

The Senate draft bill would also invest $600 million over seven years in at-risk communities across the country for preventing and fighting wildfires. At least 208 in Washington would be eligible to receive funding.

Increasingly severe wildfires have strained the forest service’s budget, making it harder for them to dedicate resources for forest health improvement. In 1995, battling wildfires only took 16 percent of the overall USFS budget, versus more than half last year.

A Bipartisan Effort

The draft bill is a bipartisan effort. Sponsors are U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Sen. Jim Risch, (R-Idaho).

“We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul,” Cantwell said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 23. “The Forest Service needs both the money to fight the fires and the money dedicated to do fuel reductions.” Cantwell is a ranking minority member of the committee.

Similar sentiments were evident at a community roundtable meeting hosted last week by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington (R-5). The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that USFS supervisor for the Colville National Forest in Washington, Rodney Smoldon, testified, “It’s frustrating, as the manager of 1.1 million acres, to be spending our money suppressing fires rather than digging out in front of it, and tactically managing the forest to change fire behavior.”

The concerns are rooted in recent history. There were record wildfire damages in Washington costing $100 million in 2014 and $178 million last year. Three USFS firefighters lost their lives in one 2015 blaze and a stunning one million acres overall burned in Washington, as wildfires beset the West.

Pilot Program Aimed At Thinning, Prescribed Burns

The Senate measure includes a pilot program proposed by Cantwell that expedites mechanical thinning and prescribed burns in the most at-risk federal forestland. The project emphasizes restoring ponderosa pine forests. A 2015 Harvard research paper found poor health conditions in these forests are “contributing to more severe burning.”

Some progress has already been made. Late last year, Congress allocated $1.6 billion for the USFS wildfire suppression budget to prevent fire-borrowing this wildfire season. That’s twice as much as what the agency received in its previous budget.

A key Washington state lawmaker, State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19), says the U.S. Senate bill as currently written could address federal forest conditions that have drawn concerns from state officials. He’s the chair of the Washington House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

It’s time to up the game, Blake told Lens. “Many of us strongly believe that our federal partners could do better at managing their landscape” but it’s been a “difficult battle” to convince them the forests are unhealthy.

Impact Of Science On Landscape

“We’ve had decades upon decades of looking at fire in the wrong way and probably not doing as much treatment on the forest landscape as we should have been doing,” Blake said. “We failed to understand the part that science plays on the landscape.”

At the U.S. Senate committee hearing, outgoing Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark voiced his support for the pilot project in the draft bill. He also warned that “investments in forest health, thinning and fuel reduction have not kept pace with the amount of risk on the landscape.” He advocated aggressively treating the forests “using fuel-reduction treatments and prescribed burning when appropriate.”

Goldmark previously expressed reluctance to use prescribed burns due to opposition in communities affected by the smoke, and to concerns the fires might get out of control.

The Senate bill has drawn support from regional private logging groups such as the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC). The council is a regional trade association that promotes logging on public timberlands as a part of active forest management. It has about 80 members in five Western states, including Washington.

In a letter to the U.S. Senate committee, AFRC President Travis Joseph wrote that the bill represented a “positive step” toward federal forest restoration and away from fire-borrowing.

More Timber Harvesting On Federal Lands

However, Joseph also noted the “lack of sustainable timber harvests from federal forest lands” and the economic impacts on local communities. The state conducts 30 times more logging than the Forest Service when comparing volume of timber per acre harvested, according to a 2015 report by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13).

As part of the U.S. Senate draft bill’s pilot project, the Forest Service will be able to enter into 20-year contracts with mills, with a priority on mills producing cross laminated timber (CLT). That’s a process that makes lumber out of smaller wood pieces, but many trees from forest thinning projects are too narrow for such use. As well, there are no CLT mills in Washington.

A state-led project on the Olympic Peninsula is looking at possible ways to make smaller trees feasible for CLT. Lens recently reported a top expert from the University of Washington “says advances in CLT production could expand the uses of narrow trees culled for forest health, and create market demand.”

Forest Health Key On State Lands, Too

In the 2016 session, state lawmakers passed HB 2928, which allows DNR to carry out controlled fires for the purpose of wildfire prevention, even when they exceed normal air quality restrictions on outdoor burning. DNR will submit a report on the pilot project by the end of 2018.

Any additional state reforms next year hinge on certain variables, including who is elected as the new state public lands commissioner this November, Blake added. The state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee is planning to make recommendations to DNR by October on how to improve their initial fire response. Their report will also address how much these recommendations will cost the state and how to fund them. The committee had its most recent meeting June 22.

Outgoing State Sen. Linda Parlette (R-12) proposed forest health improvement legislation during this year’s legislative session, which cleared Ways and Means but languished in Rules. One of the provisions directed DNR to produce by next year’s end a 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, to treat 2.7 million acres in Eastern Washington considered “in poor forest health.”

While initial fire suppression is important, Parlette told Lens that “paying money up front to improve our forest land is always much better than having to pay for the disasters after they’ve happened. You’ve got to have two pots of money; one is for putting fires out,” she said. “The other is for better forest land management.”

Forestry’s Hefty Economic Impact

Washington is currently the second largest lumber producer in the nation. According to a fact sheet from the Working Forests Action Network, the forestry industry in Washington supports $4.9 billion in wages annually and 105,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs in the state. More than 16,600 of those jobs are in King County. Forestry is the third largest manufacturing industry in Washington. Nearly half of the state’s 22.9 million acres of forestlands are working forests.

Wildfires impose a significant threat to the industry’s health and that of the environment in Washington. According to the report from Rep. Dent, based on calculation methods derived from a Forest Foundation report, each of the 1,005,423 acres burned in Washington wildfires last year released between 12 and 46.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). That falls into the range 13 to 50 percent of Washington’s total CO2 and CO2 equivalent emissions per year.

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