Encouraging Wildfire Resilience On Small Private Forestland

Encouraging Wildfire Resilience On Small Private Forestland
Small forestland owners collectively own more than three million acres in Washington state. State regulations can discourage them from forest health restoration projects, such as mechanical thinning and burning. HB 1924 would remove some of those hurdles. Photo: www-wfpa-org

As lawmakers look at ways to improve public forest health, they also want to reduce regulations that can impede similar efforts on small private forestland. HB 1924 would amend existing state law to make it easier and less costly for small private foresters to carry out mechanical thinning projects and then burn the wildfire-prone debris on their land. The bipartisan bill’s sponsor is State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13), with State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) cosponsoring.

At a February 14 public hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, forest industry members said the bill would encourage more pre-commercial thinning and removal of debris that can increase wildfire severity.

Burning Fuel The Right Way

“It’s going to burn, one way or the other,” Michael August told panel members. “I don’t want to be taxed in the form of a burn permit to be able to dispose of it. Current law is [a] disincentive for people to do the right thing.” He is a small forest owner with propety in Kittitas County.

Under state, small forest owners are those who harvest less than two million board feet per year on average from their land. These small foresters collectively own three million acres, or half, of the total private forestland in Washington state. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages a similar amount of state and federal land. In recent years, state has struggled to cope with multiple years of historic wildfire seasons that have affected both public and private land.

Making Private Forests Fire-Resilient

HB 1924’s provisions interlock with recommendations made by wildfire experts that include increased use of Firewise strategies. At a February 9 meeting of the Senate Natural Resources and Park Committee, Dr. Paul Hessburg stressed the need for more prescribed burns and thinning to restore state forest health. He is a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Research Lab.

A 2015 report put out by Assistant Ranking Minority Member State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) found that 2.6 million acres in eastern Washington need forest restoration work. Almost a third of that is private land.

State law requires private foresters obtain a burning permit from DNR, which lasts for one year. The permit fee is based on the tonnage burned. Another regulatory hurdle is the Farm Labor Contractor Act (FLCA), which requires issues anyone who performs work on a farm to be licensed and bonded by the employer. Also, a $100 fee is required for contractors who engage in forest work.

HB 1924 would amend FLCA to exclude licensing and bonding requirements for contractors working for small forest landowners with less than three employees. It would also allow DNR to offer small foresters multiple-year permits and a smaller fee.

Removing Disincentives For Forest Work

Existing state law deters small forest landowners with slim profit margins from removing fire hazards, said August. He told panel members he is trying to thin out his forestland, but the cost of a burn permit fee “represents a substantial amount of money,” and that amount increases as more fuel is removed during a given project. The FLCA contractor regulations also “forces the whole thing underground,” he added.

“If you want to create a disincentive, you’re going to create a lot of adverse outcomes because of that (fee),” August said. “People will either intentionally or willfully underreport the tonnage that they have to dispose of or not participate in the system at all. Since I’m trying to reduce fire danger, it’s counterintuitive that I would be actually taxed to do what’s in the public interest.”

The view was shared by State Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7), who told August that he is “making the forest more resilient, but you have to pay for the privilege of doing that. It’s almost like the state should be paying you for that.”

Fitzgibbon told colleagues that “I do think the small forest landowners contribute a lot to our state, and we shouldn’t have requirements apply to them that apply to very large land owners.”

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