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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Guest opinion: Infestations endanger forest health

Sen. Bob Morton

Forest health and active forest management are critical issues to our state, and a personal issue to many families in the wake of the devastating Taylor Bridge fire. There is no greater threat to clean air, water, fish and wildlife habitats – things Washingtonians hold dear – than catastrophic wildfire.

Washington’s commissioner of public lands, Peter Goldmark, has recently sounded the alarm about our state’s declining forest health and ordered a forest health hazard warning for portions of Okanogan, Ferry, Klickitat and Yakima counties. Unfortunately, the commissioner’s proposal to reduce the incidence of such fires through “responsible forest thinning” does not rise to the level of responsible forest management. Our forests are being managed and harvested less by humans than by beetles and bugs, and thinning is hardly an adequate solution to the high levels of infestation that plague our forests.

Tree density is at an all-time high in our state and, to make things worse, biologists say Washington is home to some of the most bug-infested forests in the world. Infestation is spreading more rapidly than we can harvest. It is projected that roughly one-third of all the state’s forestland east of the Cascades, about 3 million acres, will see significant die-offs or tree damage from bugs and disease in the next 15 years. Those dead trees can easily become the difference between a controllable wildfire and something catastrophic.

Fire is an inevitable part of our ecosystem, and though government can’t control the temperature or the rainfall, it can influence the fuel supply. We simply can’t continue following the fire-suppression policies of past years and allow huge amounts of potential fuel to remain standing on the slopes of our state.

To successfully address this issue and preserve our forests for future generations, we must eliminate the diseased trees and replace them by reforesting with healthy trees.

When a doctor tells someone diagnosed with cancer that the treatment plan is to remove the affected areas, it’s based on common sense and experience; we know that by leaving even a small trace of the cancer, it will likely spread and grow. Our forests are diseased as well. By not removing all of the infested trees, we are not only allowing the problem to multiply but also increasing the fuel supply to dangerous levels.

Once the main problem of infestation is addressed, secondary measures such as controlled burning, continued timber harvesting and thinning should be carried out as an ongoing, proactive priority to maintain forest health and preserve our most important natural resource.

Active forest management practices can make forest fires and wildfires more manageable, and that can mean less property and habitat damage, and less pollution of our air and water. Many infested trees still have marketable value and based on my findings are still harvestable for six to 12 months after infestation. By harvesting these trees right away, we can use them to benefit our state’s economy, lumber industry and public school system, since that money supports school construction.

Considering how people in our state have been struggling for years to make ends meet and stay in their homes, and with my fellow state policymakers facing one budget challenge after another, it hasn’t been easy to draw attention to the health of Washington’s forests. However, as the Taylor Bridge wildfire and others have reminded us, the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of proactive forest management. Let’s get through the fire season, hopefully with no more catastrophic fires, and then get serious about improving forest health.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, is the lead Republican on the Senate Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee, and a member of the Senate Environment Committee. He has served the 7th Legislative District since 1991, and was elected to the Senate in 1994.
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