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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Hilary Franz and Craig Curtis: Wildfire prevention proposal good for economy and environment

craig curtis

Lawmakers are in Olympia right now grappling with how to solve the state’s biggest challenges, including our worsening wildfire seasons, sluggish rural economies and lack of affordable housing.

Our politically divided world makes the jobs of these legislators even tougher. But we know from experience that we are stronger when we work together. Even in efforts to improve our economy and protect our environment – two goals often pitted against each other – we can find solutions that do both.

Washington’s forest health and wildfire protection plans reflect that approach. Created by scientists and firefighters at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources with buy-in from numerous public, nonprofit and private partners, these strategies modernize our firefighting force and get at the root of our wildfire crisis: the unhealthy and overgrown forests common in Eastern Washington.

Our massive 2015 wildfire season ranked only behind transportation as the top source of Washington greenhouse gas emissions. By removing underbrush and smaller, unhealthy trees from these forests, we open room for mature, healthy trees to grow stronger, remove fuel for the devastating wildfires we’ve seen and prevent carbon from burning up into the atmosphere. That’s a big win for our environment.

When we can create jobs and market demand for forest restoration byproducts, that’s a big win for our environment and our economy.

Our state is emerging as a leader in cross-laminated timber (CLT) technology, which can take smaller diameter trees to make large wood panels, up to 12 feet wide by 60 feet long, strong enough to build high-rises. Since the 2017 launch of the forest health plan, two CLT facilities have set up shop in our state, including Katerra’s new factory in Spokane Valley – the largest in North America. When compared with other building materials like steel and concrete, wood is sustainable, cost-effective, greener to produce and opens new avenues for local economies.

What’s more, when we build with wood, the carbon from the atmosphere that our trees collect is stored in our new buildings. And thanks to the quick and economical way it’s produced, building with mass timber, including CLT, has been identified as one way to grow the amount of available housing in our state to address the affordable housing crisis.

Katerra’s new factory employs 150 people in manufacturing and research and development. However, that’s only the beginning. With advanced technologies of scanning, data acquisition, machine learning, panel layup and CNC milling deployed at mass timber factories, the need exists for more mill infrastructure and advanced manufacturing jobs in our rural communities to meet dedicated lamstock supply for mass timber manufacturing while also accomplishing our forest health and wildfire protection goals.

To be truly successful, however, these forest health and wildfire protection strategies need a new, dedicated funding source in Olympia. It is time to make a long-overdue, long-term commitment to fixing these problems without draining state tax dollars so desperately needed for schools, mental health and addiction facilities and housing.

For these reasons and more, we support House Bill 2413, which would raise $62.5 million per year for this new account. The money would come from a nominal surcharge on property and casualty insurance policies, costing the average household about $1 a month. Working with groups like the Forest Health Advisory Committee, the Department of Natural Resources will use the funds to support forest management practices, such as thinning and reforestation, in addition to research and development for emerging forest products like CLT.

This plan is endorsed by The Nature Conservancy, the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, The Trust for Public Land, Forterra, Washington Fire Chiefs, the Climate Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and the American Lung Association, among others.

Instead of allowing too many trees to fuel the next megafire and release carbon and unhealthy smoke into the air, let’s put them to work storing carbon in our buildings and growing our housing stock. It will put more Washingtonians to work, too.

Hilary Franz is Washington’s commissioner of public lands. Elected in 2016, she leads our state’s wildfire fighting force. Craig Curtis, FAIA, is chief architect for Katerra, a company that produces building materials and recently opened a cross-laminated timber factory in Spokane Valley.