Record-setting wildfire seasons in recent years have prompted consensus among state lawmakers to reform public land management practices. A new bipartisan House bill would enable the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to respond faster to high-fuel loads accumulated on land they manage. The proposal was backed by WDFW during a January 9 public hearing of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, though some language tweaks may occur before advancing.
WDFW owns or manages 1 million acres in 33 wildlife areas. While a large portion of the public areas overseen by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) includes forests, WDFW’s property includes land used for grazing and, in the wrong conditions, it can be highly susceptible to brushfires. The state agency can clear fuel loads on its land, but many of the methods first require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber (R-7) is the prime sponsor of HB 2175, which would exempt certain land-use practices from the SEPA process, which she says can take up to two years. The bill is also backed by Chair (of what?) Brian Blake (D-19), who last year cosponsored wildfire-related bills that were unanimously embraced by the legislature.
“Giving the department this authority has become necessary to help prevent catastrophic wildfires,” Maycumber said at the public hearing. “The citizens of this state have lost millions of acres to high temperature fires resulting in soil erosion and acidity. This in turn creates a wasteland where nothing will grow for years to come. We must be proactive in our efforts to protect our forests and our property. Existing rules under SEPA shouldn’t stand in the way of healthy forests and smaller fires.”
Maycumber’s district is in WDFW’s North Central Region 2, where the agency owns more than 300,000 acres in Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties. That region has also experienced some of the state’s worst wildfires, including the 2014 Carlton Complex fire.
If passed, HB 2175 would exempt the following from SEPA:
- Periodic use application of Department of Agriculture-approved chemicals by licensed personnel;
- Issuance of right-of-way easements and use permits to use existing roads in nonresidential areas; and
- Issuance of grazing leases regardless of whether the land has been actively grazed.
“If there was a particularly dry season and the fuel load is high, they can introduce goats in a particular area to reduce the fire danger quickly and effectively,” Maycumber said.
WDFW official Paul Dahmer agreed. “This bill will ensure that land managers have more tools needed to move hazard fuels from the landscape.”
He told panel members that “If we haven’t grazed in the last ten years, we have to go through SEPA. This bill would remove the requirement for an EIS.”
When asked by Democrat Deputy Majority Leader Larry Springer (D-45) “is the effect of the bill been to speed up your ability to respond?” Dahmer replied that it would potentially make things quicker when looking to use certain tools.
Coinciding with that hearing was a work session discussing newly developed land-management education programs available at Green River and Grays Harbor Colleges. Both institutions now offer a bachelor’s of applied science in forest resource management intended to train the next generation of forest managers.
“We are responding to the high demand, high wage jobs such as foresters, conservation scientists, range managers and natural resource managers,” Grays Harbor College President Dr. Jim Minkler said. “In our areas, Green River College and Grays Harbor College, timber industry is still really important. Things have changed from old growth extraction now to forestry management, and of course this degree really fits in to this change in philosophy.”
No further action has been scheduled yet for the bill.