If Washingtonians think wildfires are bad now, things could get even worse for future generations. According to predictions, the Pacific Northwest could lose four times as many acres to wildfires by the 2080s compared to the median annual acreage that burned between 1916 and 2006.
However, stakeholders and policymakers have built momentum to restore the millions of acres of state forestland suffering either from overly dense, small-diameter trees or disease and insects. Last week, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Public Land Commissioner Hilary Franz took a significant, symbolic step toward that goal with the release of the agency’s 20-year forest health plan in response to two forest health bills approved earlier this year by the state legislature.
With 56 participants, including 33 agencies and organizations, the plan calls for greater collaboration among these entities on forest treatment, along with increased timber harvesting to rebuild the state’s dwindling mill infrastructure.
Their aim is to reduce the severity of wildfires, which in recent years have destroyed forestland while exacting a large economic and financial cost in rural communities and the state, though this year’s wildfire season was somewhat tame compared to previous years. A total of 168,028 acres were burned, roughly 40 percent of it on grassland managed by the Bureau of Land Management. That is less than last year’s Range 12 fire near Yakima, which alone burned 176,600 acres.
Matt Comisky is the Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council and one of the participants involved in crafting DNR’s forest health plan. He told Lens that it provides “good, solid direction to the process, but also gives the flexibility to take into account the inherent differences” in land uses.
“The one key thing is while owners may know property boundaries, as we’ve seen, fire does not know boundary lines.” With better cooperation, “you can bring more resources to the table. Traditionally, in the past they (land owners) may not have been as well coordinated with their forest health treatments.”
That view is shared by Jason Callahan, director of government relations for the Washington Forest Protection Association. The trade association represents 50 private forest landowners in the state.
He told Lens that “if it’s (forest health) going to stick, it’s got to be a sustainable policy. Policy development for sustainability comes through collaboration.”
“Landowners all have their own objectives,” he added. “And to be sustainable…those objectives have to be recognized and appreciated. That’s where the collaboration is really key. There are certainly different opinions on the best way to manage forest health. But I guess what comes in conflict is when there’s perception that a land owner is told to change how they manage their land.”
Comisky said: “Most all the players have been at the table together for many, many years working on these very similar types of things. I don’t think there’s real divergence.”
The plan represents a consensus not just among stakeholders, but also among state lawmakers who unanimously approved SB 5546 and HB 1711 during this year’s legislative session. Both bills call for DNR to prioritize and target high-risk forestland for treatment. “Regardless of where you come from on land management, continuing the status quo and burning more acreage just does not benefit anyone,” Comisky said.
A December 2015 report issued by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) found that approximately 2.7 million acres of the 10 million acres of forestland in eastern Washington are at high risk from wildfire, insects and other hazards. To restore these lands, DNR aims to ramp up the use of mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, following its pilot burn project carried out late last year per HB 2928. Although its use has been restricted in the past by policymakers and local air quality control boards, forestry experts have recently called attention to its vital role in reducing fuel loads on forest floors. A similar observation has been made by conservationists.
In an article on forest health practices, the Nature Conservancy stated that “with the exclusion of fire, trees that would normally be cleared out by wildfire can grow dense. The density and layering of trees provide a path for flames to reach the high foliage of the ponderosa and potentially move from one crown of a tree to another. Smaller trees, shrubs, and brush can fuel even hotter flames, and send the blaze upward into the ponderosa pine’s crown. These crown fires are the most devastating kind of fire for pine trees.”
However, DNR’s plan does not specifically address how conflicts with air quality control boards will be addressed. Spokesperson Joe Smillie said that they’re “looking to use it (prescribed burns) as much as possible, but there’s also the separate conversation” that needs to be had.
Comisky said that “we tried to kind of address that in the 20-year strategy, but I think there’s still a lot more work to do.”
DNR’s plan also acknowledges the lack of mill infrastructure to carry out many of the forest health projects, a problem highlighted earlier this year by the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. Along with increased timber harvesting, the state agency will also look into possible commercial uses for small-diameter trees, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) that allow DNR to recoup costs associated with forest thinning projects.
“If there’s a reliable wood supply, the thought is the mills will open,” Callahan said.
The number of mills in the state have dropped from 493 in 1968 to just 97 in 2014, which Callahan blames on “the slowed reduction of harvest on federal lands.” This meshes with timber harvest figures that show the Forest Service harvested 1.4 billion board feet of timber on its Washington forest lands in 1986, but less than 100 million in 2011.
Unlike the state, the feds have no trust mandate to generate revenue from their forestland.
However, Comisky said “as we expand these treatments over the 20-year plan, we’ll increase the availability of those raw materials.”
The next step for Franz is to appoint a Forest Health Advisory Committee that will oversee the forest health assessments and treatment process.