Fighting fires with healthier forests: State unveils long-term plan for forest restoration

CLE ELUM — This summer’s costly Jolly Mountain Fire made Cle Elum the ideal place to unveil Washington’s 20-year-plan to restore forest health and take a more proactive approach to reducing catastrophic wildfires.

State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz announced the plan Wednesday afternoon at Putnam Centennial Center in front of an audience featuring many of the legislators and representatives of organizations working together to fight one of the state’s largest, most urgent environmental threats. The new Forest Health Strategic Plan comes with a new, 22-person Forest Health Advisory Committee to work toward the goal of treating 1.25 million acres by 2037 by various methods, such as thinning and prescribed fires.

“It is extremely expensive to fight these fires,” Franz said. “It gets harder and harder, given the forest health issues that we have, to be able to protect properties and resources that are building into our forest land areas.”

High-priority areas for treatment include plenty of land in Kittitas County, where the Jolly Mountain Fire burned nearly 37,000 acres and required $25 million of the $130 million the state has spent fighting fires this year. Dense forests and invasive species make it especially susceptible to severe fires, and Franz noted that with different winds, communities such as Roslyn and Cle Elum could have faced much greater danger.

The Nature Conservancy’s government relations director, Tom Bugert, said the conservancy and other organizations have been using the new plan’s proven, science-based approach to restore forest health for about a decade. But he called the additional bipartisan support from elected officials such as Franz, Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, and Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, a “game-changer” needed to accelerate those critical efforts.

The work will be costly, and the Legislature’s decision of whether to approve the $15 million requested by the Department of Natural Resources this year in the capital budget could be key to a strong start. Franz said the recent catastrophic fires in Washington and elsewhere, along with several bills passed over the past few years, give her confidence in receiving a much bigger financial commitment moving forward.

Increased commercial logging would help make restoration more cost-effective, particularly in areas like Central Washington where a lack of mills drives up transportation costs for timber. Franz believes a long-term plan endorsed by more than 33 organizations across the state and an ongoing analysis by The Nature Conservancy and other groups to determine how much timber will be available should make private companies more willing to commit to new resources.

Franz also praised efforts to organize a prescribed fire training exchange on federal and private lands in Kittitas County earlier this fall, which allowed firefighters from several organizations to learn techniques and become certified. Washington still lags behind other Western states in prescribed burns, so it must first overcome a lack of qualified personnel.

Meeting the plan’s objectives would mean treating an average of more than 60,000 acres per year, but Bugert believes the resources will exist to quickly ramp up prevention efforts. However, he noted that it would take cooperation and sacrifices from the public on issues such as dealing with smoke and stopping development of forest lands.

“It’s part of the dialogue I think we as a public need to have,” Bugert said. “I think we all want our little slice of paradise, a little cabin out in the woods surrounded by green trees, and there are choices and consequences that come with that in terms of splitting firefighter resources and threats to homes and property.”