Breakthrough coming for forest health efforts?

Breakthrough coming for forest health efforts?
Testimony provided at the Nov. 14 work session of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee indicated how state agencies and private groups plan to ramp up the number of prescribed burn projects as part of an overall strategy to improve state forestland health. Photo: TJ Martinell

As parts of California are being consumed by what has become the state’s worst wildfire season, Washington state lawmakers and private and public stakeholders are looking at how to prevent wildfires from replicating that same devastation here.

A Nov. 14 Senate committee work session outlined the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) plans for the upcoming biennium, as well as long-term collaborative efforts with other state agencies and private groups to enhance forest health restoration by increasing the use of prescribed burning. Among the changes planned are updates to DNR’s smoke management plan, possible clarifications to state laws on smoke and increasing the number of trained personnel capable of conducting the burns.

Reducing wildfire severity has become a major concern for private and public stakeholders following the 2014 season that ranked as the worst for wildfires in state history. The following year had the most acreage burned than any year prior. Since 2009, DNR alone has spent $726 million on fire suppression.

Responsible for much of the wildfire severity are the more than two million acres of forestland requiring restoration work due to disease, tree-killing bugs or over-density. Last year, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz released a 20-year forest health plan that called for more prescribed burning. During this year’s session, state lawmakers approved two bills calling on DNR to prioritize the most at-risk forestland for treatment and to treat one million acres by 2033.

One of the many effective ways to improve public forestlands, which often abut private forestland owners, is through greater use of prescribed burning. Washington Prescribed Fire Council Coordinator Kara Karboski told the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee that “the same way rainforests need rain, we have forest in Eastern Washington and grassland that need fire.”

However, experts have previously testified that current policies and the lack of “social license” due to public perception often make that difficult.

DNR’s recent $55 million funding request for the 2019-21 capital budget includes $17 million to treat 33,000 acres. At the same time, the agency wants to remove barriers to further use of prescribed burning and plans to add a manager to head up its prescribed burn program built out from a 2016 pilot project funded by the legislature.

George Geissler is the Washington state forester and DNR’s deputy supervisor for wildland and forest health. At the Nov. 14, he told panel members that “a forest or any landscape that is healthy is very resilient to disease and insects. That use of fire not only helps reduce competition, but it also has the opportunity to reduce latter fuels for fire. The use of prescribed fire along with other types of tools that are out there…all of this is done with the idea of reducing the losses from catastrophic fire.”

Although the state Department of Ecology manages air quality control under the Clean Air Act, and local air quality boards can impose burn bans, prescribed burn projects fall under DNR’s purview under its smoke management plan. Impending changes to that plan for the first time since 1998 include targeting low-risk areas where burns will be more easily controlled and streamlining the permit process. That work is expected to take two years before completion.

Working in collaboration with DNR on those updates is the state Department of Ecology. At the Nov. 14 meeting, Ecology Government Relations Director Denise Clifford called prescribed burning a “critical tool’ for forest management. The two state agencies recently met with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discuss the plan updates, as the federal agency’s approval will ultimately be required for any revisions.

Another change DNR will make is improved training for burners by hiring a field coordinator to teach best practices. This year, the legislature approved legislation creating a voluntary prescribed burn manager certification program for private landowners.

Yet, several state laws still affect how and where these burns are carried out. One statute prohibiting burns within an urban growth boundary (UGA) can make it difficult for towns and cities such as Roslyn – which is located adjacent to forestland – to do restoration work.

Another state law defining nuisance smoke is “very subjective, and we would like to get that clarified,” Geissler said.

Revisions to those statutes is expected to take 12-18 months to complete.

At the same time, Karboski says local communities impacted by the smoke from burns require more outreach to help change attitudes. “What we were hearing from burners is ‘We need help talking to the public about why we’re doing this.’”

That seemingly fits one of the conclusions of a 2010 report by the European Forest Institute that examined numerous case studies of prescribed burnings conducted in Västernorrland County, Sweden in the 2000s. “One important lesson learned was that it takes much convincing before a fire programme can be started – and once started it demands constant arguing for its continuation….it was not enough to provide some successful examples and prove that prescribed fire improves biological diversity.”

Also working on improving forest health in the state is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WFDW), which manages 1 million acres that includes 200,000 acres of forestland. The state agency’s 2019-21 budget request includes $6 million to treat 6,000 acres.

WDFW Land Stewardship and Operations Manager Paul Dahmer told lawmakers that while these forestlands will require ongoing treatment every decade or so, “the nice thing is the large investment early on is not as much as you need later.”

However, Geissler noted the lack of mill infrastructure creates challenges for this work. It’s a problem that’s also been identified by the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, a 15-member group tasked with making recommendations on DNR capital budget request and fire response strategies.

“Washington state seems to suffer from the same situation as most states in the west,” Geissler said. “While we think of Washington as having a tremendous amount of forest and forestry activities, in a lot of the places where these activities need to take place, we don’t have the milling infrastructure or the loggers or…the forest workers to address that need.”

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