Washington state faces a forest-health crisis, with each summer offering a smoky reminder of the increasing magnitude of the problem. In Central and Eastern Washington alone, there are 2.7 million acres of poorly managed, fire-prone forestland. The cost of these fires is paid by people who suffer from the dangerously poor air quality but also by wildlife that lose critical habitat. I’ve seen this devastation firsthand. In the early 2000s, I worked a wildfire that ravaged a forested area designated as spotted-owl habitat.
There is bipartisan agreement that the state needs to take action and restore these forests to a more natural and fire-resistant condition. Legislators unanimously adopted House Bill 1168, which pledged to supply $125 million each biennium for wildfire preparation and prevention. These funds are needed not only to fund firefighters and equipment, but to thin and treat dying forests.
There is also scientific consensus that poor forest health is the primary cause of the wave of wildfires we have experienced across the American West. While some point to climate change as the main cause, research from the U.S. Forest Service found that poor forest health was the driver in more than half of the high-severity fires between 2002-2015, with climate accounting for only 14%.
Meaningful progress in treating unhealthy, fire-prone forests has been difficult because harvesting and thinning often costs more than it yields, even when some timber revenue is generated. Without a source of funding, there will be very little progress toward reducing the risk of recurring catastrophic wildfire we’ve witnessed in recent years. The cost of meeting the goals of the Washington state Department of Natural Resources’ 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan is likely to be hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars over the course of the plan.
A proposal from state Rep. Mary Dye, the ranking Republican on the House Environment Committee, would fill that funding gap. Known as the Outdoor Recreation and Climate Adaptation (ORCA) plan, one part of the proposal would allocate $125 million per biennium from the state’s new carbon taxes toward forest-health projects.
Some of the revenue would also fund infrastructure in timber and farming communities. A lack of mill capacity, logging-truck drivers and other essential timber workers makes it prohibitively expensive to harvest in some parts of the state. Timber from unhealthy forests is already low-value, and a lack of infrastructure increases cost by making it more difficult to get logs to market.
The program would also work with family-forest landowners, who account for nearly half of the state’s private forestland, helping to pay for wide buffers that keep streams cool for salmon.
The combination of these projects would help reduce the environmental impacts of rising temperatures on forest and streams, building the state’s logging capacity, and funding projects that restore the health of Washington’s forests.
Thinning, harvesting and treating forests with controlled burns are the only meaningful tools we have to reduce the occurrence of catastrophic fires. Even if the world meets all the CO2-targets outlined in the Paris Climate Accords, temperatures, and the risk of catastrophic fire, will still likely be higher in 2100 than today. That’s why President Joe Biden’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told wildland firefighters in June that the only way to fight the increase in these fires is to “significantly increase the level of management on our forests,” including harvesting.
By providing a reliable source of revenue, the ORCA plan would guarantee future funding to address Washington’s forest-health crisis. A long-term source of revenue is required if the state is going to reduce the massive backlog of work that needs to be done in state forests.
This is just one element of repairing the damage caused by years of mismanagement and neglect. Without it, however, it is unlikely we will make progress in ensuring Washington is known for its evergreen forests and not for the fires that threaten to destroy them.