Inland Journal, Jan. 2, 2020: Conservation Groups Mixed On Proposed Wildfire Prevention Fund

Jan 2, 2020

Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has proposed a surcharge on some insurance premiums to pay for a state wildfire prevention fund.
Credit Washington Department of Natural Resources

Wildfire prevention will be a prominent part of the Washington legislature’s agenda in 2020. Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz is proposing the state create a new Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness Account.

“Every year, on average, we’re spending about $153 million just to respond to fires," Franz said. "The fact is we will not be able to change the trajectory we’re on of increasing wildfires throughout our state and the increasing cost of wildfires unless we start getting at the front end of the problem.”

She is proposing a surcharge on property and casualty insurance premiums.

Policy holders, she estimates, would pay an average of a dollar more a month to fund the new account. She projects the new tax will raise about $63 million a year, some of it devoted to wildfire prevention and suppression.

“So we can get on those fires quickly, put them out, keep them small and contained and protect our communities, protect our landscapes," she said.

Franz's plan calls for hiring more than 40 new full-time wildland firefighters and buying equipment for them to use, 15 fire engines and a helicopter. And it would provide money for local people to bolster their fire prevention and suppression work.

The rest of the new wildfire fund would go to thin forests that are overstocked to reduce the fuels available for wildfires to burn.

“So we’ve put forward two plans, both informed and developed by firefighting chiefs and experts within forest health, one’s a 10-year wildfire strategic plan, the other is a 20-year forest health plan. But for those plans to be effective and not just be paper on a shelf, we have to have funding," Franz said.

You can hear a longer version of our interview with Hilary Franz in the December 5 edition of Inland Journal at the Spokane Public Radio website. And you can read more about her proposal at the Department of Natural Resources website.

“We have legislators, I’d say, across the spectrum, eastern, western Washington, Republican, Democrat, who all do believe we need to spend money. They believe we need to have funding for the forest health work, for us to reduce these catastrophic fires, and believe also that we need fire equipment. I’ve got nine helicopters to protect this entire state, all fought in the Vietnam War era," Franz said.

In addition to that bipartisan support, Franz says she has the backing of an organization that represents fire chiefs in Washington and from some in the environmental community. Her press release includes a quote of support from the Washington state director for The Nature Conservancy. But there’s division within the environmental community about the effectiveness of the “forest restoration” approach. That’s what we’ll spend the next few minutes exploring. What do other conservation groups, some of whom supported Franz in her run for lands commissioner in 2016, think about her plan and the forest restoration approach in general?

We called four in Washington and Idaho.

“I’m all for it, as long as it’s balanced," said Gloria Flora, the executive director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions. That’s a non-profit based in Colville that Flora says focuses on the sustainability of public lands.

“I’m very much in favor of a comprehensive approach to forest restoration, to forest health. But that also means the health of all the other components that form the forest, as well as understanding and taking into account the human dimension," Flora said. "Trees and vegetation aren’t the only things that are suffering in the face of climate change, drought, insect and disease, weather perturbations, all these weird things that we’re seeing along with wildfires. Wildlife and aquatic species are impacted just as much so we have to be paying attention to their habitats, not just focused on less fuel equals good.”

Flora was a 23-year Forest Service employee. She served as a supervisor on federal forests in Montana and Nevada. She’s also a member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which works closely with the agency on the Colville forest. She says the Forest Service approach to managing land has continued to evolve since the 1980s, when timber harvest levels on federal land peaked.

“The normal Forest Service programs in the past were primarily on commercial timber harvest and the fuels treatments were kind of an aside that were done as a matter of course while we’re here. We’re harvesting trees commercially so let’s do some kind of fuels treatment. Now, fuels treatment are just as important if not more so than the commercial harvest. The commercial harvest is almost a byproduct; we call it an outcome of the efforts that we’re doing," Flora said.

She supports the restoration work that’s done on the ground, as long as it’s part of a broader strategy.

“If we’re getting so focused on restoration and fuels treatment, which are important, that we fail to look at that bigger picture, we’re going down the same rabbit hole that we ended up in last century," Flora said. "If we are thinning from below, protecting old growth, protecting large specimens, large trees and encouraging the late successional stage, that’s a benefit. If we’re looking at reducing the density of stands, particularly young stands, so there’s reduced competition for the water and nutrients, so they’re more resilient in the face of drought and insect and disease, that’s a good thing.”

One of Gloria Flora’s colleagues on the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is Tiana Luke. She is a conservation associate for Seattle-based Conservation Northwest. Luke is based in Deer Park.  

Conservation Northwest has been involved in the Northwest timber wars for years, especially in the debate over preserving old growth. For the last several years, it, along with the Nature Conservancy and the Lands Council, have participated in the forest collaborative movement that has divided environmental groups.

“Our views have really changed," Luke said. "The idea is that we want to make sure we’re effective in achieving our goals and we want to have high integrity when we do such things and we want to work with the community. So, working in collaboratives, I don’t see that changing in the near future unless the people that we collaborate with decide to do something different.”

Through that work, in cooperation with the Forest Service, timber interests and other local groups, Luke believes that projects, especially on federal land, are better for the environment than they used to be.

“The type of forestry that was done on national forests, 20, 30, 40 years ago, looks completely different than what it looks like now," she said. "I think we have made leaps and bounds in the quality of forest restoration, in general, that we’re doing on the forests. Not everything looks like we would want to see. There’s some projects going on now that look like they could be straight from the ‘80s, which is highly disappointing, but we’re working to remedy that in future projects.”

As far as Hilary Franz’s proposal for state lands, “We’re in support of the new 20-year forest health strategic plan that’s going on right now," Luke said. "We’re supportive of some of the analyses that are coming out of the Department of Natural Resources, in concert with the work on the Colville National Forest. For example, DNR is helping to do landscape-level diagnostic analyses for some of these projects on the Colville National Forest that are really going to help us have high quality ecological restoration outcomes.”

Tiana Luke and Gloria Flora also work on the Colville forestry collaborative with one of its co-founders, Tim Coleman. Coleman directs the Kettle Range Conservation Group in Republic.

“We learned how to work together and we’ve obviously done a fantastic job of doing that. We have made the Colville National Forest famous. We have helped it become quite rich, actually, where it has a pool of money that it’s gotten from retained receipts from its stewardship projects that we have supported and facilitated in a lot of ways," he said.

Coleman has been especially critical of the Forest Service for its new Colville Forest Plan, released earlier this fall. That’s a story we’ll tell a different day.

When it comes to what Hilary Franz wants for state forests, "The commissioner’s approach is an honest, solidly-based approach to restoring healthy forests," Coleman said. "I live in one. I own 80 acres of forest and some help from my neighbors, thinning around their homes and their buildings, the state provided that support. So I think that part of it is excellent to help landowners to reduce fuel loads around their buildings and to carefully manage their forests as well.”

Despite that, Coleman is skeptical because of the state’s collaboration with the Forest Service on projects near his home, projects that remind Coleman of the timber harvests of 20 or 30 years ago.

“We’re seeing this now in the Trout Lake project, which is directly associated with the Sherman Pass project. It’s right near Hoodoo Canyon and Trout Lake," he said. "The Department of Natural Resources has been out there marking the trees and basically doing what the Forest Service would be doing, but they’re being supported by the state under the Good Neighbor Authority.”

The Good Neighbor Authority allows the Forest Service to grant permission to states and others to help with the work on restoration projects. Hilary Franz likes it because she says it allows states to help an underfunded Forest Service with projects that might not otherwise get done.

“That aspect of that investment at the state level, I’m concerned about what it actually means. I think the good intentions, the public needs to pay attention to this to make sure those good intentions are followed through,” Coleman said.

For our final opinion on this, we cross the border into Idaho and talk with Gary Macfarlane. He’s the ecosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater in Moscow. He’s also concerned with how the Good Neighbor Authority works.

“It lacks the kind of accountability that should be, to the American public, about public land management and national forest management, because the agency in charge, that’s the Forest Service, is not the one doing the on-the-ground sale administration or even laying out of the sale," Macfarlane said.

Moreover, Macfarlane is skeptical about the need for restoration projects.  

“If the fires are more dangerous than they have been in the past, it’s because of climate, rather than the idea of overstocking," he said. "And in fact, I would argue that, by logging and removing trees, you do a couple things. You remove shade from the ground and you allow wind to penetrate and what that creates are conditions that are more conducive to fire than by having a shaded and moister forest.”

Like Tim Coleman, Macfarlane believes Hilary Franz has good intentions, but he says, mixing timber jurisdictions, state forests and federal forests, has legal implications.

“The national forests are under the National Forest Management Act and they have what’s called a ‘multiple use.’ Now we can argue about whether ‘multiple use’ is a good idea or not, but they are under ‘multiple use’, which has to take into account wildlife, watershed and diversity concerns across the landscape. The state forests are managed under a school trust doctrine that requires maximum revenue generation. It’s a very different and, in fact, probably oppositional kind of management than you would have on the national forests," Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane is skeptical about whether more timber harvest on state land will lead to the intended goals, the reduction and intensity of wildfires.

We’ll follow the progress of Commissioner Franz’s proposal through the Washington legislature this session. Lawmakers convene in Olympia on January 13.