Forest health funding tax proposed

Forest health funding tax proposed
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) have proposed a surcharge on auto and home insurance policies to pay for wildfire suppression and forest health work. Photo: freepik.com

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in recent years has developed a fire protection strategy plan as well as a long-term forest health plan to address severe wildfire seasons and unhealthy forestland. Now, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) have proposed a new $5 surcharge on home and auto insurance policies to fund those plans.

Since 2010, the state has spent more than $500 million fighting wildfires. At a Dec. 2 press conference in Tumwater, Franz pitched the new tax as a less expensive and more effective way for Washingtonians to fund forest restoration and wildfire prevention. “This bill is a simple, common sense proposal to reduce wildfire damage and cost.”

“That money will be much better spent preventing those fires in the first place,” Fitzgibbon said.

In 2017, DNR released its 20-year Forest Health Plan; a year later, the state agency published its Wildland Fire Protection 10-year Strategic Plan. The health plan is meant to address the millions of acres of forestland highly susceptible to wildfire due to disease, insects, large fuel loads or overly dense tree stands.

“Strategic plans are only as good as the funding that comes forward to implement them,” Franz said. “Otherwise, they are simply piles of paper on a shelf.”

While this year’s wildfire season was the mildest in years, forest experts say it is heavily dependent on seasonal weather. Also, a recent study found that several Washington communities are at the same wildfire risk as Paradise, Calif., which suffered severe damage from the 2018 Camp Fire.

At the press conference, Franz said the current reactive approach, in which funding is spent on firefighting after the fact, isn’t sustainable.

“We know what the future looks like if we continue to operate the way we have; all we have to do is look to our neighbor to the south in California,” Franz said. “This is not a hypothetical or an abstract risk. This is a very real risk for Washington state.”

The new surcharge tax would raise an estimated $63 million annually. Under the proposal, a dedicated account would be created for that revenue. According to Franz, the new money would enable DNR to hire more than 40 new firefighters, along with a new helicopter and fire trucks. More training experts and fire engine leaders would also be hired. The revenue would also be invested in wildfire-prone communities located within the urban-wildland interface.

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