The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages 2.1 million acres of working forests located on state trust land with a legal mandate to generate revenue. The latest State Lands report shows that timber activity on those forestlands generated $174 million in 2018, which goes toward trust beneficiaries and pays for local infrastructure projects and education.
Although the timber harvests on state land has increased in recent years, one challenge facing DNR is protecting that land from increasingly severe wildfire seasons. While DNR is implementing its 20-year Forest Health Plan, another approach the agency is taking is active management of working forests to either maintain or improve wildfire resilience.
While western Washington is now experiencing more frequent wildfires, much of the focus remains on eastern Washington. That part of the state has roughly 2.6-2.7 million acres in need of restoration, according to a 2014 DNR report. However, it is likely those numbers have changed since the data was collected. Of the 2.7 million acres, roughly 250,000 acres or 10 percent was on DNR land; the state agency manages a total of 662,340 acres in eastern Washington.
Since 2015 DNR has ramped up health treatments and treated 60,000 acres of trust land, compared to 51,000 acres between 2004-2015. Roughly 190,000 acres of trust land still needs restoration work. DNR’s goal under the 20-year Health Plan is to treat 70,000 acres annually.
However, these working forestlands can still be at risk if a wildfire starts on adjacent land and spreads. At a May 7 meeting of the Washington State Board of Natural Resources, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said “in the context of wildfire…there is no boundary that insect and disease and fire follows, unlike how humans follow boundaries of property jurisdictional lines.”
Along with the agency’s 20-year Forest Health Plan, the state legislature in recent years has passed several wildfire-related laws. HB 1711 directed DNR to prioritize restoration work that protects state forestlands. However, Franz told colleagues that the agency is taking an “agnostic” approach to forest health restoration in the 20-year Forest Health Plan, “versus just looking at our piece of the pie, because it will not do anything, frankly, or enough if we just focus on it (state forestland).”
Ways to restore forest health include fuel removal, pre-commercial thinning and prescribed burns. At the same time, DNR Deputy Supervisor for State Uplands Angus Brodie told the board that “our approach to forest health is holistic” by including timber harvestings. According to DNR’s 2017 timber harvest report, 529,214 thousand board feet were harvested on state land that year. In comparison, 438,349 thousand board feet of timber were harvested on state land in 2015, and 442,169 in 2012.
“Right now, the prime purpose of the regeneration activities is a revenue generation,” Brodie said. “We’ve reached the end of a rotation and we’re going to harvest that timber. That’s a revenue trust management activity, but it’s also…serving as a forest health treatment as well, because we’re reducing fuel loads. Many of those stands that we’re harvesting are also overstocked, so instead of doing a thinning we’ve chosen to do a regeneration harvest.”
Through the Forest Health Revolving Account, DNR can use that revenue from those dual harvests and treatments to pay for other forest health restoration projects. As a result, “we’re not subject to the legislature ensuring us funding,” Franz said.