Consensus Building On Forest Health Restoration

Consensus Building On Forest Health Restoration
An interagency crew conducts a prescribed burn to reduce forest fuel loads. SB 5546 calls for renewed forest health restoration projects such as this as part of an overall wildfire suppression strategy. Photo: ucanr.edu

As Washington prepares for the upcoming wildfire season, one of the challenges it faces is the roughly three million acres of forest land in need of restoration due to over density, disease, or insects. Lawmakers sponsoring two bipartisan bills hope to use a growing consensus on the matter to revitalize forest health work. SB 5546 directs the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to prioritize those forestlands and begin a treatment plan, with the goal of finishing the work by 2033. HB 1711 would have DNR create a six-year plan to target and treat the most wildfire-prone state land.

These forest treatments could prove crucial for wildfire suppression efforts and reduce costs to taxpayers, as experts warn an era of mega-fires is on the horizon.

Consensus On Restoring Forest Health

SB 5546 was given a warm reception Thursday, February 9 during a Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee public hearing by private foresters, conservationists, and local tribe representatives. Also in support of the bill is DNR Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who has recently emphasized the need to improve forest health as part of the state’s wildfire suppression strategy.

SB 5546 chief sponsor is Majority Assistant Floor Leader Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12) told colleagues that “we need a cultural shift in thinking about wildfire, a shift from being reactive to wildfire to being proactive. And that’s what this bill (SB 5546) attempts to do.” He is also the Vice Chair of Natural Resources and Parks.

Cosponsors include Chair Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-39), panel member and Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. John McCoy (D-38), and Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35).

Protecting Private Forestland

The legislation could also help address concerns by forest industry groups to make state and federally-managed forests bordering private land owners more fire resilient.

That urgency was articulated at the meeting by Jason Callahan, Directors of Governmental Relations for the Washington Forest Protection Association. He told committee members that “if we’re going to focus limited resources on forest health, we’d rather see that targeted to the public forests, state and federal,” particularly forests bordering private land owners.

The bill’s provisions match many recommendations made by Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Research Lab. At the February 9 meeting, he underscored the role forest health plays in determining the severity of a wildfire. He gave the same presentation last month to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

“I don’t want us to be afraid,” Hessburg said January 19 to panel members. “I want us to feel powerful. We can actually change how wildfires affect our homes, our towns, and the landscape that surrounds us.”

A 2015 report put out by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) found 2.6 million acres in eastern Washington require forest restoration. It also warned of 2.7 million acres in danger of severe damage from insects and diseases.

However, that figure could now be as high as three million. That’s according to Loren Torgerson, DNR’s Northeast Region Manager.

Also, the report doesn’t say which areas in need of treatment are the most susceptible to wildfires, says Mary Verner. She is DNR’s Deputy Supervisor of Resource Protection and Administration.

She told panel members “what we don’t have is a current assessment of wildfire risk. We’re learning by experienced where the wildfire is. We’re sort of chasing what we know is a big problem, but we don’t know exactly how big it is or how it’s comprised.”

Pinpointing The Wildfire Threat

SB 5546 seeks to fill information gap. It requires DNR to complete a statewide assessment of land requiring treatment, along with the estimated costs and method, such as prescribed burning or mechanical thinning. The state agency would also have to report to the legislature biannually with a prioritized list of land to be treated, funding requests for that restoration work, as well as projects completed following the previous biannual report.

Nature Conservancy Government Relations Manager Tom Bugert told committee members that the bill’s language “gives good guidance to the agency without being overly constraining. It is bringing in a landscape skill approach.” The conservation organization owns more than 100,000 acres in Washington state.

In agreement was Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Conservation Northwest. He told committee members the bill is “the first time we’ve seen legislation that we think brings together the science approach of landscape planning and adapting to forest resilience.”

The biannual DNR reports stipulated under SB 5546 would also include recommendations on how to address any restrictions on those treatments.

Forest Health Connected To Wildfire Severity

Although SB 5546 doesn’t have a price tag yet, Torgerson emphasized to committee members the high financial cost borne by taxpayers when severe wildfires occur. Since 2014, the state has spent $325 million fighting wildfires.

The “real deterioration of the health of forest” and “very significant and catastrophic wildfires go hand in hand,” Torgerson said.

His observation matches the findings of a 2015 Harvard research paper, which concluded the poor health of Washington forests is “contributing to more severe burning.”

Restoring those forests will not only reduce wildfires, but help “rebuild local economies and job opportunities,” said DNR Legislative Director Dave Warren.

“We do have shared goals, which I think the bill envisions,” he said.

HB 1711 also received a public hearing February 9 in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. The bill’s chief sponsor is State Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7). Cosponsors include Majority Caucus Chair Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37) and Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Larry Springer (D-45). Executive action is scheduled for February 16.

Chair State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) told Lens the diverse political support for the bills shows “we’re starting to break out of the old paradigm of ‘us against them.’ You’ve got to have the infrastructure to mill logs, the stability of a land base to go get the logs, and combine that with the need to do forest health, both the mechanical work and using fire beneficially.”

“It’s definitely a breakthrough starting to happen,” he added.

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