Since 1986, timber harvests on Washington forestland managed by federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has decreased from 1.4 billion board feet of timber to 103 million board feet, according to the most recent figures from 2017. Between 2009-2014, USFS composed 14 percent of all mechanical forest treatments in eastern Washington, while private and commercial landowners made up over 50 percent of total treatments.
Those figures could change as the result of a recent executive order issued by President Donald Trump calling for increased logging on federal land and an overall goal of 3.8 billion board feet of timber. Intended to reduce the severity of wildfires such as the Butte County fire in California that killed over 88 people, the Dec. 21 order also directs federal agencies to reduce fuel loads on forest floors, with the aim of treating 3.5 million acres of USFS land. Washington’s national forests are managed under USFS’s Pacific Northwest Region (region 6), which also includes Oregon.
The order argues that “for decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires. These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.”
There are more than 22 million acres of forestland in Washington that compose half the state. Of that forestland, 43 percent – or 14.2 million acres – is managed by the federal government; 5.5 million specifically by USFS. Most of USFS land (4.9 million acres) is in eastern Washington, where a 2014 report by USFS and the Nature Conservancy concluded that 2.7 million acres, or 30 percent of total forestland, requires active management and are at “risk to suffer severe damage from insects and diseases over the next 15 years.”
According to the report, 42 percent, or 1.1 million acres, of the eastern Washington forestland needing restoration is managed by USFS (page 30). The report also found that the number of trees in eastern Washington forests killed by insect and disease within the last decade has increased by 150 percent since the 1990s and 200 percent since the 1980s.
Trump’s order directs USFS to treat 2.2 million acres “to protect water quality and mitigate severe flooding and erosion risks arising from forest fires,” though it doesn’t specify which areas. However, it does call for them to identify areas with “the highest probability of catastrophic wildfires, as well as areas on those lands where there is a high probability that wildfires would threaten people, structures, or other high-value assets.”
The order also instructs USFS to perform maintenance on Forest Service roads and “reduce the time required to comply with consultation obligations under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.”