Senate Passes Forest Restoration Bill, Though Funding Still Uncertain

Senate Passes Forest Restoration Bill, Though Funding Still Uncertain
Washington State Senate has unanimously approved SB 5546, which aims to treat one million acres of state land by 2033. However, budget constraints could prove challenging for other wildfire bills lawmakers say are vital to reduce wildfire severity. Photo: State Department of Natural Resources.

The Washington State Senate has unanimously approved SB 5546 directing the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to treat one million acres of state land by 2033. It and other similar bills reflect a growing bipartisan agreement on the importance of forest health restoration to reduce wildfire severity. However, the money to fund those projects may be hard to come by, as other wildfire bills face an uphill battle moving through key fiscal committees. However, sponsors say the money invested in their proposals would pay large dividends during wildfire season.

SB 5546’s chief sponsor is Majority Assistant Floor Leader Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12). Prior to the Wednesday, March 1 floor vote, he touted the broad range of stakeholders involved in developing the legislation that include the Nature Conservancy and DNR staff.

“As most of us know, we suffered devastating back to back summers of the state’s largest wildfires in 2014 and 2015,” Hawkins said. “But there are fortunately some good things that come from that. We had a community conversation developed locally for ideas for how we can shift our thinking when it comes to wildfire.”

Cultural Shift In Wildfire Prevention Strategy

He added that the bill represents a statewide push for “a cultural shift in thinking when it comes to wildfires; a shift from being reactive to wildfire to one of being proactive. One of the best ways to do that is make sure we’re adequately treating our forests.”

SB 5546 bill had previously cleared out of Natural Resources and Ways and Means last month. It is now in House Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Lawmaker: Bill Is Toothless Without Funding

However, Ways and Means has not yet appropriated money in the operating budget to pay it. It is expected to cost the state $2 million over the next four years, another $1 million in the 2021-23 biennium. However, committee staff estimated it could require an additional $25 million per biennium from the capital budget to restore 125,000 acres of forest.

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-24) warned colleagues March 1 that without funding, the bill will be toothless.

“It’s a great policy and will work to hopefully ensure that the state does not have devastating wildfires in the future,” he said. “However, I just want to make a point that it needs to be funded. This policy will not work and it will do no good if it doesn’t have the funding to go along with it.”

Similar to SB 546 is HB 1711, which would task DNR with creating a six-year plan to target and treat the most at-risk state land. It has cleared the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Appropriations. That bill is sponsored by Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7), who has sponsored other wildfire legislation.

Undoing Harm Caused By Neglect, Mismanagement

Providing much of the impetus behind these efforts are numerous presentations to key legislative committees by Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Research Lab. Hessburg has called attention to the poor condition of Washington forestland due to years of mismanaged and later neglect, and how it directly contributes to mega-fires. His conclusions are backed by the findings of a 2015 report by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13). It concluded that around 2.7 million acres of land in Eastern Washington was at risk of severe damage from insects and diseases.

At the same time, Hessburg has warned that the true cost of wildfires go beyond firefighting. He estimates that for every dollar spent on suppression, another $24 is consumed in rebuilding and restoring damaged buildings and infrastructure, or lost business revenue.

Some state lawmakers want to mitigate wildfire damage by putting them out as quickly as possible. Two bipartisan House bills aiming to do that were referred to Appropriations Committee, but failed to garner a reading before the February 24 cutoff date. HB 1019 sponsored by Dent cleared the House Committee on Public Safety after a January 16 public hearing. The bill cosponsors include three Democrats. 

The bill would allow DNR to preemptively deploy firefighters near areas where wildfires are likely to grow beyond what local fire districts can handle. It was a strategy DNR used during last year’s wildfire season. A fiscal note on the bill prepared by committee staff shows no cost, but Dent says pre-deploying five firefighting teams for three days would cost an estimated $250,000.

Dent: Put Out Wildfires In Two Hours, Not Two Days

“If we have some assets that are prepositioned so it doesn’t take two to three days, we can really get on these fires much quicker,” he said. “The initial fire attack is the most important thing we can do. Our fuel loads are so great in our forests that it explodes fast if you’re not on them immediately. I want to be on those fires in two hours, not two days.”

Another bill pertaining to initial attack efforts is HB 1736, sponsored by State Rep. Mary Dye (R-9). The cosponsors are Kretz, and Dent, along with six Democrats such as State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19).

The bill would direct the state fire marshal to create a financial assistance program to reimburse local fire districts that use aircraft during an initial wildfire response.

Dye told Lens that “air support make all the difference in initial attack” and can “potentially save homes, save lives, and definitely save dollars” by snuffing out fires in remote areas. However, the when the wildfire is still within the local jurisdiction, fire district bears the costs.  She hopes to make $2 million available through the program.

“We just want to give the local fire department the opportunity to jump in with an effective initial attack and get things slowed while they get their crews down to the site.”

Both bills can still be added into the final budget the legislature approves. However, the money for them may be scarce at a time when legislators are already searching for ways to fully fund basic education.

However, not investing in the initial attack could cost the state later when mega-fires result, said Dent.

Dye agrees. “It will save us in the long run if we just put these activities up front. We could potentially save ourselves from a catastrophic loss.”

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