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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Hilary Franz: We must come together to address our wildfire crisis and our forest health crisis

Hilary Franz

Most of us remember growing up when summer meant long, warm days full of running, swimming and playing in our great outdoors. Summer was always a welcome respite from gray skies and cold weather. Today, summers have come to mean something else.

We have a forest health crisis in our state. This forest health crisis is leading to more catastrophic wildfires. As a result, our summer skies are filled with smoke much of the summer, forcing coaches to cancel baseball and soccer games and parents to keep their children indoors.

Hot, dry conditions coupled with diseased and dying forests are leading to explosive wildfires, which threaten our communities and blacken our summer skies.

In Eastern Washington alone, the Department of Natural Resources has identified 2.7million acres of unhealthy forests – an area larger than Yellowstone National Park and twice the size of the state of Delaware.

Last year, as the state’s largest wildfire fighting force, DNR responded to 800 fires, keeping 96 percent under 10 acres. Our firefighters, along with local, tribal and federal partners, heroically put their lives on the line to protect our communities from wildfire.

But despite their tireless efforts and success keeping most wildfires small, we still had 400,000 acres burn in Washington last year. And suppressing these fires came at great expense, costing our state $130 million.

The reality is that simply fighting fires is no longer enough. We’ve spent more than $1billion of state tax dollars fighting wildfires over the past decade, but still hundreds of thousands of acres burn each year.

If we are to make real progress, we need to restore the health and natural wildfire resistance of our forests. The good news is, by actively managing our forests, we can bring back them back to health.

That’s why, last fall, the Department of Natural Resources launched its 20-year Forest Health Plan. This first-of-its-kind plan sets a bold goal of restoring more than one million acres of forest to health, building fire resilience and better protecting our communities from wildfires.

This ambitious scale of forest restoration is unprecedented in our state. And, if we are to accomplish our goal, it will require significant investment, as well as new and innovative partnerships.

Just over a year ago, I signed a historic Good Neighbor Authority agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. This agreement allows us to restore forests across state and federal lands. Our federal lands represent over half of the 2.7 million acres of forests in poor health.

Wildfires and forest health issues don’t respect ownership boundaries. So our work to collectively solve our forest health crisis cannot be constrained by them.

The Department of Natural Resources will use its streamlined contracting procedures and experienced staff to carry out restoration projects on federal forestland – projects supported by local communities and vetted through federal environmental review.

We’re also hard at work helping private landowners keep their forests healthier, so fires do not rip through a diseased forest only to burn down homes and healthier forestland on a neighbor’s adjacent property.

Thanks to our partnership with the legislature the past two years, and through increased funding for DNR’s cost-share program, we are helping small forest landowners perform thinning projects that restore their forest to more natural stands of timber, reducing the threat of catastrophic mega-fires and boosting local jobs in rural Washington.

This task is bigger than any single agency, and it requires us all to pitch in. That’s why on Thursday, I will be holding a Wildfire and Forest Health Town Hall in Spokane (6p.m., Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture) to talk with the community about wildfire preparation and how we can, together, make progress toward healthy and resilient forests across all of Washington.

Because, if we are going to build a better future, if our children and our grandchildren are going to have the kinds of summers we had, then we have to speed up our efforts to create healthier forests.

We’ve put together new tools that will lead the way – tools like the Good Neighbor Authority, like our investment in forest health treatments, and our work to help private forest owners – and we have partnered with the legislature in our work. Now it’s time to get to work.

Through cooperation and the sharing of experience and expertise, we can achieve a future in which our forests are safer and more productive and our Evergreen State stays true to its name.

Hilary Franz is the Washington

Commissioner of Public Lands.

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