Covid-related aid and police reform will be two of the major issues before the Washington legislature when it convenes next month.
But newly-reelected Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz hopes legislators will also consider dedicating more funding for wildfire and forest health projects.
Around Labor Day, the eyes of the nation were turned to Washington because of wildfires and terrible air quality. Hilary Franz warns there’s more of that in the state’s future unless it works to make its forests more resilient. In the weeks heading up to the 2021 legislative session, Franz has been talking to legislators about finding more money for wildfire prevention and suppression.
“There has been a very positive reception by a majority of the legislators about how critical it is that we are investing in wildfire response and in the forest restoration. There is also a clear reality that comes through too about there’s not much resources. There are very competing needs, given the economic impacts, given the need in housing and health and human services," she said.
But Franz says the state is paying to respond to wildfires, whether the money is budgeted or not. She wants the legislature to create a dedicated fund to help her agency focus on three areas.
“Wildfire response, that’s the air resources. Firefighters, getting more resources to the local districts who are first on the line. It’s forest restoration. It’s restoring the health of the one million acres of forest that is in our forest health plan. And community resilience, how do we try to do our best to make sure that we don’t have what Malden faced," she said.
Malden is, of course, one of the two small Whitman County towns overrun by a wildfire in September.
During last year’s session, Franz proposed a small tax on casualty insurance premiums to fill a new wildfire fund. The legislature didn’t bite. This time she’s taking a different approach.
“We’re right now currently staying agnostic to the funding source," she said. "What I’ve heard across the board from the legislators is largely agreement about the importance of investing in wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience.”
Franz says her office is working with legislators from both parties to find a funding source or sources that are more palatable to a majority of lawmakers. She‘s optimistic there’s finally enough political will to address a problem that seems to return every summer.