Forest health: How to assess our new state Lands Commissioner

originally published Jan 2017–

We need to be taking a more proactive role in restoring our forest health.” These words from newly-elected Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz highlight something people do not typically associate with forestry politics: scientific consensus.

Quietly, over a decade, the last two lands commissioners – one from each party – have recognized that the primary challenge facing our forests is restoring their health. Many lie in an unnatural state.

Humans created much of the problem. To protect communities near forests, our forest managers fought fires that previously kept forests healthy by reducing the number of small trees competing for sunlight, water, and nutrients. Forest politics, however, intervened and made it difficult to replace fire with thinning that would have simulated the effect of natural forest fires and created healthy forests.

When I was an official at the Department of Natural Resources, we repeatedly argued that forests needed thinning, only to have environmental groups oppose those treatments and also responsible timber harvests that could have helped fund thinning.

Lack of funding constrained our efforts to address forest health. Now the challenges facing Commissioner-elect Franz are even more serious. Many of the forests in eastern and western Washington are in a status known as “competitive exclusion” – a condition more prone to fire, and less suitable as wildlife habitat.

To be sure, some forests in this category produce high volumes of environmentally-friendly timber, earning revenue for the state and creating jobs. However, without responsible managements these forests can become fire-prone.

Fortunately a good plan is in place to reduce the amount of forest in competitive exclusion in western Washington from more than 70 percent down to 60 percent or less in the next 30 years. This would also double the amount of older forests, providing good habitat for wildlife.

Achieving this goal won’t be easy. In her remarks to the Washington Forest Protection Association, Franz noted, “We know we are only going to see greater challenges environmentally with climate change.” Whether natural or human-caused, temperatures have been higher in recent years and unhealthy forests are extremely prone to the type of catastrophic fires we saw in 2014 and 2015.

The biggest challenge, however, will be where to find the money.

Relying on the legislature is simply not an option. Whatever funding that might be available will get swept up quickly due to direction from the state supreme court to spend more on education. Environmental groups who supported Franz’s election say they want a tax increase, but only to fund green energy subsidies, not forest management.

The only option is to earn revenue by managing state forests, producing timber for sale. This approach earns money the state desperately needs to fund environmental restoration and creates jobs in rural communities.

Four years from now this is the metric by which we should judge Hillary Franz – did she make forests healthier, or are they more fire-prone?

She will need to show courage to follow the forestry science and avoid partisan forestry politics.

First, she will have to stand up to her biggest campaign donor, one who openly advocates to dramatically reduce sensible management of state forests. Between Franz’s campaign and the independent expenditure that supported her, that donor contributed about one-quarter of her campaign funds. That one Seattle environmentalist hopes his contributions mean more than the advice of forestry scientists.

Second, she will have to overcome the 1970s mindset of many people in the environmental community. Many Seattle-based activists earned their stripes fighting the “timber wars.” Despite today’s scientific consensus on healthy forests, many greens remain stuck in a fight that is decades old.

Outgoing Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark wisely chose science over politics. Franz should too.

When it comes to creating habitat and making our forests resistant to increased fire risk, the test will be whether the incoming lands commissioner puts forests on track to health. Doing that means generating revenue to do the necessary work, rather than hoping the legislature will find money in the midst of so many other spending pressures.

Her decision on that single basic question will determine whether forest habitat is stronger or weaker four years from now.