State forest health, resilience top many agendas

The future health and resilience of Washington’s forests may be that rare topic that finds willing supporters and budget dollars even in times of tight budgets. It’s certainly on everybody’s agenda these days.

Last Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee was pitching his climate change bill before the House Environment Committee. On Friday, the House Capital Budget Committee met with state agency representatives in a work session on the impacts of climate change. Next Tuesday, the Senate Natural Resources will hear testimony on why prescribed burning is part of the solution for the long-term health of state forests.

And now the Department of Natural Resources is aligning itself with nongovernmental conservation organizations — including prescribed-burning advocates — in seeking $15 million in “forest health” funding for Eastern Washington forests over the next two years.

“It’s a very wise investment,” Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said on Monday. “And I’m pleased to see the Legislature is inclined.”

If the $15 million “forest health” capital budget request is approved, the first $10 million would go toward thinning operations in forests turned wildfire-prone by insect infestation and overcrowding, notably those in Yakima, Klickitat, Okanogan and Ferry counties highlighted in Goldmark’s 2012 Forest Health Hazard Warning.

The remaining $5 million would expand to treatments on neighboring state, private and federal lands. Although the DNR would administer the funds, the projects would be prioritized by a committee of locally based conservation and multi-interest groups, who would help enlist matching federal funding. The projects would also include prescribed burning — something that until now has never been part of the DNR’s way of doing things.

“If they can use prescribed burning in a manner that improves forest health and doesn’t represent a significant wildfire risk,” Goldmark said, “we can be supportive.

“The problem is so enormous that we welcome any help we can get in terms of reaching the greater goal of restoring our forests to a condition that makes them more resilient to wildfire, more resilient to insect attack and more resilient in a changing climate.”

Reese Lolley of The Nature Conservancy calls the Collaborative Forest Health and Restoration Initiative — through which nongovernmental organizations such as the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative and others would help prioritize the ways in which the DNR’s “forest health” money would be spent — “a new way of doing things.”

The idea, Lolley said, is that each organization can help muster additional private and federal funding to augment whatever the state budgets for “forest health,” and putting the collective money to best use regardless of ownership lines. The collaboration would also make the fuels treatments, whether mechanical thinning or prescribed burning, easier to accomplish because they wouldn’t be confined to land owned or managed by a single entity.

“It’s more of an ‘all-lands’ approach,” Lolley said. “There are some pieces to work through — how you create incentives for multiple agencies and interest groups to work together.”

The Legislature will begin the capital budget process later this week, and if the budget is finalized as hoped for by mid-May and includes the DNR’s “forest health” request, the project work would begin after the new fiscal year begins July 1. The work would include five treatment projects spanning some 30,000 acres in Yakima and Kittitas counties.

Even in a difficult fiscal climate, Goldmark said, making forests more wildfire-resistant is worth the expense.

“I think people understand: You invest pennies now and it pays dollars, and tens of dollars, later in terms of making the forest more resilient, and you don’t have to spend as much on wildfires in the future,” he said. “Pardon the expression, but it’s a no-brainer. You need to do the restorative work now, and the benefits will last for decades and decades.”