For many Washington rural communities reliant on state land timber sales, catastrophic wildfire seasons can deliver an economic one-two punch: local homes and businesses are damaged, while a significant source of employment goes up in flames. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can auction off fire-damaged timber on the 2.1 million acres of forested state trust they manage. However, often times many of these sales are delayed by appeals under a slew of state environmental laws and regulations, and the timber becomes unusable.
Improving Rural Economy, Forest Health Together
HB 1710 seeks to limit those appeals by exempting fire-damaged timber sales from provisions in the State Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and review under the Pollution Control Hearings Board per forest land practices. Business and logging industry spokespersons say more logging would provide a dual benefit by improving the wildfire resilience of state forestland while helping local rural communities regain lost economic activity.
The bipartisan bill’s chief sponsor is State Rep Joel Kretz (R-7). Cosponsors are State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19), Minority Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Joe Schmick (R-9), and State Rep. Cary Condotta (R-12).
At a February 14 public hearing of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Kretz told colleagues that appeals can extend beyond the timber’s useful condition. Although he still wants DNR to assess the environmental impacts of logging, “my concern is that we’ve got a lot of timber with the revenue [and] we’re trying to fund schools right now.” Timber that would otherwise be sold can go to waste “whether the appeal has any merit or not,” he added.
Keeping Window Of Opportunity Open
In 2015, DNR sold 50 million board feet of salvaged timber, the same year wildfires burned one million acres statewide.
Tim Boyd says more timber could be sold if frivolous appeals didn’t prevent the logging of that wood until the “window of opportunity is lost.” He is a lobbyist for Vaagen Brothers and Boise Cascade.
He told panel members that the loss of timber sales is “really a second tragedy for communities that have been impacted by wildfire. During the course of a bad fire season, DNR isn’t putting up any timber sales. They’re busy fighting fire. Logging is typically restricted during a bad fire season, even if there is wood to be harvested.”
The state’s lumber mills have dwindled over the last 50 years. In 1968, there were 493 mills. That number fell to 97 by 2014, when the most recent report was completed.
Wildfires only compound existing financial strains on those remaining mills, said Boyd.
“The mills that had a nice log deck on hand heading into the fire season are running on empty by the end of the fire season and going into fall,” he said. “So they badly need some timber in those yards to keep the families working, in some cases families that lost their homes during the wildfires.”
Study: Timber Harvesting Doesn’t Harm Fire-Damaged Forestland
In agreement was Mary Catherine McAleer, who told committee members the “rural economics in the state are hurting” from the loss of timber sales. She is the Director of Government Affairs on environmental issues for the Association of Washington Businesses (AWB). The association has 8,000 employer members, a third of which do business in rural communities.
McAleer cited a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which examined the environmental impacts of logging damaged timber after the 2002 Cone Fire in California. It concluded vegetation was “relatively similar to areas untouched by logging equipment.”
“The science is pretty clear on this topic,” McAleer said.
HB 1710 proponents such as Boyd say logging fire-damaged timber will also remove forest fuel that has contributed to severe wildfires in recent years. Wildfire experts have highlighted the importance of forest thinning as a part of restoration efforts.
“We don’t see much environmental value in leaving the burned timber on the ground,” Boyd added.
It was a point raised by panel member State Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20) who asked Boyd that “this timber that’s been subject to a fire is not harvested and just stands there; isn’t that also a huge fire hazard?”
Boyd replied, “It is more susceptible than ever…to bugs and to disease, and certainly it could be the source of another wildfire. It’s standing there pretty much in open space at that point and a pretty easy target for the next lightning strike.”
HB 1710 proponents might find an ally in newly-elected Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who has named revitalizing local rural economies among her top priorities.
At a January 12 meeting of Agriculture and Natural Resources, she underscored to panel members the need to maximize public trust land revenue in order to revitalize rural communities dependent on lumber mills. She also noted the impacts to forest health restoration efforts in Central and Eastern Washington, where the lack of mills “makes it harder for us to actively manager our forests.”
“We are seeing communities with significantly depressed economies that continue to be struggling,” she said. “I believe Department of Natural Resources is a huge opportunity to be a part of the solution to those challenges.”
Boyd emphasized the need for “trust on all sides” for the exemptions under HB 1710 to work. “Trust in our new lands commissioner and DNR experts that are responsible for managing the state trust land. We’ve seen the alternative leaving the wood out there. It hasn’t worked very well for us. We think it’s an opportunity to try something different.”