Lands Commissioner Franz addresses large crowd in Winthrop
By Marcy Stamper
Because of the record volume of comments, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has revised a forest treatment for Virginia Ridge and postponed the timber sale until next year.
It’s important to coordinate forest health treatments and timber sales with the local communities, particularly as the agency launches a 20-year initiative to treat ailing forests throughout Eastern Washington, state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said at a meeting at the Winthrop Barn on Monday (May 21).
“You’re officially the most-engaged community in Washington state,” said Franz, thanking the nearly 100 people who came out to learn about DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan and the proposed thinning and timber sale. They also heard about DNR’s preparations for this year’s wildfire season. “I will take passion over apathy any day,” said Franz.
When plans were announced for the Virginia Ridge Forest Improvement Timber (FIT) sale, people flooded DNR with concerns about the visual impact such extensive logging could have on the hills near Sun Mountain Lodge. Many worried about negative economic effects on the valley’s tourism industry, saying DNR’s plans to leave only 21 to 30 trees per acre — from the current 150 — would resemble a clear-cut.
Others were concerned that the intervention wouldn’t even address DNR’s objective to restore health to an overgrown forest and to eliminate wildfire risk. They said that taking out too many trees would dry out the understory, actually increasing fire risk.
Everyone who commented on the sale agreed that it is important to treat the forest to reduce fires but differed about the science and how to achieve that, said Franz.
The sale calls for thinning and logging 735 acres, mostly in the Wolf Creek and Virginia Ridge areas, plus a small area near Mazama.
After reviewing comments and talking with environmental groups and other interested parties, DNR revised the plans to leave 40 trees per acre. Trees will be left in clumps, with individual trees and openings to create a more natural appearance and mimic the historic effects of fire.
DNR will leave all trees more than 100 years old or larger than 24 inches in diameter at breast height. Although it’s planned as a forest-health project, DNR will sell the timber to help fund the work.
Designing the Virginia Ridge and Wolf Creek forest treatments started before the 20-year initiative, when the densely forested slopes there were identified as an area that would be a problem if fire strikes, said Franz.
“This is a landscape with significant concern for wildfire. I’m scared to death that this 700 acres could go up in flames this year,” she said. Still, DNR postponed the timber auction — initially scheduled for May 2018 — until February 2019 because of community concerns, she said.
During the four-month treatment — most likely next summer and fall — there will be an average of eight to 10 trucks a day, with a maximum of 20, said Bob McKellar, state lands assistant region manager.
The workers will pile and chip slash and may incorporate prescribed burning. “We are believers in prescribed fire. That’s a new position for this agency leadership,” said Franz. “But we need to get it right, or it will set back the entire program. We have to go slow to go fast.”
State Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12th district) told the group at the barn about his work in the Legislature to develop a proactive effort to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
There are 2.7 million acres of forest in Eastern Washington in poor health — almost 30 percent of the forested lands east of the Cascade crest, and the forest-health crisis is being felt on the West side too, said Franz.
DNR plans to treat 1.25 million of those acres over 20 years — 70,000 per year — as part of the strategic plan, which was developed in coordination with 30 agencies and nonprofits. Treatments will be tailored to individual watersheds.
Half of the 1.25 million acres is state land, and half is federal or tribal, said Franz. Recognizing that wildfire and destructive insects don’t honor jurisdictional boundaries, the strategic plan includes collaboration with federal partners and grants for private-property owners, said Franz. “It’s all hands, all lands,” said forest health strategic adviser Julie Sackett.
The collaboration is unprecedented in Washington, with $13 million in the current capital budget to start these treatments, said Franz. There will be monitoring and biannual reports to the Legislature.
The initiative also includes planning for economic development of mills and other timber processors in Eastern Washington.
Worried about fire season
DNR has 800 firefighters and 550 seasonal firefighters for this year, but Franz projected they won’t have enough resources. “I’m predicting this fire season is not going to be good — I’ll be completely frank,” she said.
The state is experiencing much longer fire seasons. Whereas the season used to run from June through September, 2018 already had its first wildfire in February, and last year fire season didn’t end until November, said Steve Harris, Northeast region wildfire and forest practices assistant manager. That prompted DNR to shift many firefighters to year-round positions, he said.
DNR has also reached agreements with federal and other state agencies to send the closest resource when a fire is reported, and to address financial responsibility after initial attack, said Harris.
“Wildfire season is upon us. My goal as commissioner is to be more approachable in communities, and to show our ability to respond,” said Franz.