As the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submits its largest firefighting budget request ever, it is also implementing its 20-year forest health plan to restore more than one million acres of private and public forestland affected by overgrowth, disease and insects.
The plan reflects a greater collective emphasis made by state, tribal and private stakeholders on the need for active forest management to reduce wildfire severity and enable use of the land..
Such sentiment was expressed by panel members at the Washington Forest Protection Association’s annual meeting earlier this month. The organization’s members include more than 50 individuals and companies including Vaagen Brothers Lumber, Weyerhaeuser Company and Wilcox Farms Inc.
At the meeting, WFPA Director of Forest and Environmental Programs Doug Hooks remarked that polling conducted in the past indicated that “most folks thought that protection of forests meant they were not managed. That was a complete oxymoron to me as a forester.”
WFPA Executive Director Mark Doumit told Lens that long-term active management by its
members with large properties is why little work will be carried out per DNR’s 20-year plan in their forests. Doumit is also on the state Forest Health Advisory Committee tasked with prioritizing forestland projects.
“Most of my members use their own resources to take care of their land,” he said. “They are more aggressive with their harvest and thus they’re managing the land fairly frequently. They have them on a harvest and management scheme that’s similar to where DNR is trying to take those state lands.”
That revenue-driven strategy helps incentivize WFPA members such as Hancock Forest Management to maintain the 240,000 acres of working forests in Washington state it manages on behalf of investors. At the WFPA annual meeting, Northeast Washington Region Manager J.D. Marshall said they plan to plant two million trees next year to help restore forests affected by wildfires.
“When folks invest in land with us (and) through us, they’re obviously looking for a return on investment, and that’s what we provide,” he said.
Marshall is also a member of the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee.
DNR has a similar objective for the 2.1 million acres of forested state trust lands via a legal mandate to generate revenues for local road infrastructure and public schools.
At WFPA’s annual meeting, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said: “we’re going to have to be making sure we’re setting up our state for long-term success with the key resources that we know we need. Money to just fight fires isn’t going to solve this problem by itself. It’s frankly a band-aid. When we do these forest health treatments, we’re actually able to make revenue that helps not only ensure we’re reducing our fires, but we can actually strengthen our local economies.”
As part of its 20-year forest health strategy, DNR is currently working on “planning areas” ranging from 38,000 to 200,000 acres; 12 planning areas are scheduled for release as part of the 2018 cycle. The state agency has already selected 22 additional planning areas encompassing 1.5 million acres of forestland. The parameters of those areas are drawn according to a “watershed approach” that Franz described as “agonistic to property lines.”
DNR Planner Chuck Hersey told Lens that the forestland is evaluated for wildfire risk, potential changes due to drought and its current vegetation compared to historic conditions. Once the plans are completed, the landowners are left to decide if and when to implement them.
“The real challenge with the 20-year plan is we’re trying to get a critical mass of treatment,” he said. “If you only treat 10-20 percent of parcels, you’re not going to change wildfire as much.”
Another goal of the evaluations is to determine what changes have occurred to the landscape since 2012, when data was gathered for the U.S. Forest Service and Nature Conservancy’s report detailing the 2.7 million acres in need of active management.
Hersey estimates that 25-40 percent of the forestland requires pre-commercial thinning, commercial thinning or prescribed burning. One of the present challenges with commercial thinning is the lack of mill infrastructure, a fact noted at the WFPA meeting by both DNR Forest Health Strategic Advisor Julie Sackett and WDFW Lands Division Manager Cynthia Wilkerson.
Wilkerson said that their primary objective for forest management is fish and wildlife habitat conservation, which is used for outdoor hunting and fishing opportunities. Although the state agency harvested 2.5 million board feet of timber on five wildlife areas last month, Wilkerson said “we don’t measure ourselves by the economic output. That’s not our job.”
Next year, WDFW plans to conduct a variety of forest health treatments on more than 6,000 acres within its wildlife areas.
In addition to the suppression of natural fires that can often clear forest beds of fuel loads, controlled burns have also been restricted, though state agency officials aim to change that. Its limited use in recent years has proven effective. Prior to the 2015 Okanogan Complex Fire, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) used controlled burns to treat 4,000 acres of forestland inside the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area that helped protect it from flames.
“As we’ve done fire suppression for 100 years, it’s very important that we get in and actively manage those forests,” Doumit said.
Regardless of the treatment method, the plans underscore the importance of actively managing the forests. Cody Desautel is the natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which treats 10,000 acres a year. He is also a member of the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee.
For the tribes, their focus is on the connection between forestland and fish and game habitat, as well as revenues generated for tribal members from the 75-80 million board feet of timber harvested annually.
“Having infrastructure and (mill) capacity nearby is very, very important,” he said.
At the WFPA meeting, Desautel said that work done by the tribes over the last 30 years has helped improve the wildlife habitat, and though it hasn’t reduced the acreage burned by wildfires, he noted that fires within those areas are less severe.