Insect-damaged trees in Washington's forests make the state vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires, says Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark.

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OLYMPIA — The state public-lands commissioner on Monday proposed a forest health-hazard warning for parts of Eastern Washington, citing concerns about deteriorating forest conditions and potential catastrophic wildfires.

Acres of trees in Eastern Washington have been killed or damaged in the past decade by insects and diseases such as western spruce budworm. Tree die-offs are likely to occur across nearly 3 million acres in Eastern Washington over the next 15 years, according to state estimates.

“Unhealthy forests are contributing to the destructive fires we have seen in Colorado and across the West,” Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said, adding that he’s taking action to improve forest health “before it is too late.”

In January, Goldmark called together a group of foresters and scientists to advise him on how to respond to worsening tree damage in Eastern Washington.

The panel of experts recommended that he issue a hazard warning for eastern Okanogan and western Ferry counties because of concerns with western spruce budworm, a native forest insect that eats new growth from Douglas fir and grand fir trees in Eastern Washington.

A warning designation allows the state to focus resources and actions on the problem, including asking landowners in designated “warning areas” to take certain actions.

Goldmark said he’ll take the panel’s advice but also expand the warning to include pine bark beetles in Okanogan and Ferry counties and in parts of Klickitat and Yakima counties, as well as spruce budworm in all of Ferry County. The panel identified those as areas of concern.

The state plans to hold public hearings on the issue next week, before the commissioner takes final action.

Goldmark announced the proposal Monday as he toured two forested areas near Blewett Pass between Cle Elum and Ellensburg in Klickitat County. One area was dense with damaged trees, while a project in the other area had thinned out the diseased and weaker trees.

“If you don’t pay attention to the problem, fires will develop and it will affect communities in a disastrous manner,” Goldmark said.

He said he’ll direct $4.3 million allocated by the state Legislature this year toward projects that will help improve forest health.

The number of acres damaged by forest insects and diseases in the state in the past decade is three times greater than in the 1980s, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Many forests in Eastern Washington are overcrowded or dominated by trees that are more at risk for damage, officials say.