20-year strategy for treating fire-prone areas
By Ann McCreary
Thinning and prescribed burning will take place on 1.25 million acres of fire-prone eastern Washington forests over the next 20 years under a plan announced last week by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last week.
The “20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan” will accelerate planning and implementation of forest restoration and treatment work aimed at making forests healthier and more resilient to wildfire, said Hillary Franz, public lands commissioner. The plan calls for large-scale projects to be carried out across boundaries of state, federal, tribal and private lands.
The plan was developed by a group representing 33 agencies and organizations with a stake in forest health, including state and federal land management agencies, county government, scientists, timber industry representatives, environmental groups and forest collaboratives. Legislation passed by the Washington Legislature in 2016 and 2017 requires DNR to develop a forest health plan and set goals for treatment.
The plan establishes an “Advisory Committee on Forest Health” representing diverse interests to advise on implementation of the plan “and make sure what we’re doing is something the stakeholders are going to support,” said Carrie McCausland, DNR spokesperson.
Two categories of forest health treatments are proposed. Mechanical treatments include commercial and noncommercial thinning to reduce densely packed forest that have become overgrown because of decades of fire suppression. Prescribed fire, or controlled burning, helps reduce fuel loads and increase effectiveness of mechanical treatments to withstand and constrain future wildfires.
The plan includes strategies to develop marketable byproducts of thinning, Franz said. It also lays out protocols for working with landowners and to help communities cope with threats of unhealthy forests.
Near-term actions described in the 62-page plan call for selecting large watersheds of about 150,000 acres as planning areas, and identifying smaller 20,000-acre watersheds within them to prioritize for evaluation and treatment prescriptions. Recommended treatments and requests for appropriations will be included in a report DNR is required to submit to the Legislature every two years. The first report is due on Dec. 1, 2018, according to the plan.
Eastern Washington forests have become vulnerable to disease, insects and wildfires as a result of past land management and fire suppression policies. About 2.7 million acres of eastern Washington forests need some sort of active treatment to make them healthier, according to the Forest Health Strategic Plan.
“Forest health, wildfire risk and rural economic development are inextricably linked in eastern Washington,” the report said. “Our rural communities and all people in Washington state benefit from well-managed, resilient forest ecosystems that provide timber products, natural resource and recreation jobs, wildlife habitat, clean water and many other important ecosystem services and social values.”
Through a tool adopted by Washington state this year called the “Good Neighbor Authority,” the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can pass through federal dollars to state agencies to plan and implement forest health treatments on federal lands and facilitate projects that involve different landowners.
DNR and the Forest Service are already involved in collaborative thinning work under the Good Neighbor Authority on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and another project is planned to start soon in the Colville area, said McCausland. Legislation passed in 2016 required treatment of 1 million acres by 2033, she said.
“That work has already begun. We will see that work evolve a bit” under the new 20-year plan that continues through 2037 and expands the acreage to 1.25 million, McCausland said.
“We now have the plan and the partners to treat our high-risk forests with scientifically sound, landscape-scale, cross-boundary projects … to stem the severe damage from overgrowth, mismanagement, disease and intense wildfire that so many of our forests are experiencing,” Franz said.
The Forest Health Strategic Plan can be found at www.dnr.wa.gov/ForestHealthPlan.