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Inland Journal, Dec. 5, 2019: Treating Forests To Prevent Wildfires

Washington Department of Natural Resources

Today on Inland Journal, two segments about the health of forests in our region.

Later, we’ll hear part of a session from a Western Governors Association workshop conducted Tuesday in Post Falls. It focused on improving the resilience of forests in the region.

But first, this week, Washington state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz released a plan to create a dedicated fund to pay for forest health and wildfire prevention. She proposes a surcharge on property and casualty insurance premiums. Her office estimates the increased cost for the average household will be a little more than a dollar a month and raise about $63 million a year.
Hilary Franz joins us in our studio. Her proposal for a wildfire preparedness and prevention account will go before the legislature next month.

Forest health was also on the agenda at a workshop in Post Falls, Idaho on Tuesday. The meeting was sponsored by the Western Governors Association. Idaho’s Brad Little was the only governor present. He presided over a panel discussion about natural resource management, particularly the use of timber harvests in reducing the risk and intensity of wildfires.

“You know, attitudes kind of ebb and flow in that area, but in my mind, the general consensus of the necessity for really good forest health has gone way up. It wasn’t like somebody flipped a switch on, it was gradual. A lot of it was research that was done by the universities, changes of practices by the timber industry, but it was always accelerated when we had one of those nasty summers," Little said.

The Northwest has had several of those nasty summers this decade, when high heat and winds combined with drought to cause severe wildfires. Smoke hovered over the region for days at a time. Public health officials warned people to limit their exposure to it. The black scars from those fires are still visible.

“I really think we have a crisis in the forests. You heard the governor talk about forest health," said Tom Schultz, the vice president for government affairs for the Idaho Forest Group, a Coeur d’Alene company that operates six sawmills in north Idaho and Montana.

“What’s happened in the last 10 years, the amount of mortality has increased substantially," he said. "Based on Forest Service data that’s been taken, the fires have increased. We’ve got stands that are much more dense than they have been historically, so we’ve got conditions on the landscape that there’s estimates that over 70% of the national forests are in some need of restoration treatments.”

Wildfires have not only caused physical damage, they’ve also moved the political needle on land management and forest policy.

Timber harvest levels in the national forests peaked in the late 1980s, then were reduced significantly during the 1990s. Conservation groups aggressively used the Forest Service’s administrative appeals and legal systems to successfully challenge timber sales. Now, as the consensus builds for the need for thinning crowded forests, those levels are slowly going up.

“The seven forests in Idaho, in the last five years, have significantly increased the amount of timber harvest that we’ve been doing on national forest system lands," said Cheryl Probert, the supervisor on Idaho’s Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

Probert says the Forest Service is using what is known as its Good Neighbor Authority to bring in states, local governments and private industry to help with, and bring their own resources to, restoration projects on federal land.

“The Forest Service has been, at a national level, really emphasizing streamlining and more efficient processes, both in terms of how we do our environmental planning and how we do our implementation out on the ground," she said. "We’ve got a lot more tools in our planning toolbox that Western Governors Association and a lot of our federal representatives have been incredible advocates for us to give us those tools. We also have contracting. We have 20-year stewardship agreement authority now and we need to figure out how to enter into that world more.”
Tom Schultz said all of those tools will be needed to treat forests. He says research shows a link: as timber harvests decreased over the years, the number and intensity of wildfires increased.

“You can say it’s climate change. You can say it’s drought. You can say it’s insect and disease," Schultz said. "The other piece you can not take away, though, is with the lack of active management. There has been an increase in forest fires. There is a correlation there. And what we’ve seen in the last 10 years, we’ve seen three seasons in the last 10 years where we’ve burned more than 10 million acres nationally. So how do we get that active management piece back up, which is your question.”

Schultz then made the case for higher harvest levels in Idaho’s national forests.

“The Forest Service cannot do it alone," he said. "We need to work with the local collaboratives. We have a very vigorous, healthy collaboration across multiple forests in Idaho. Even there’s one on the Caribou-Targhee right now that we’re actually involved in helping establish that, even though we don’t source wood out of there. We’re trying to get that collaborative spirit going. So you need collaboration. I think you have to have good data. You have to have willingness. You talked about good leadership in the forest; you’ve got to have that. I think you have to have state participation.”

And, he says, it would help to have governments allocate more money to help land management agencies develop more forest restoration projects that allow for more timber cutting.

Higher harvest levels, said Schultz and others in the discussion, including Chelsea Pennick McIver, would not only lead to healthier forests, but they would also lead to the rebuilding of a timber industry in Idaho. Pennick McIver is a research analyst for the Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho.

“There’s a lot of economic activity that’s generated from all along the supply chain, although we also know that, since the 1980s, there’s been a lot of efficiency gains. There’s fewer people that are employed for every million board feet of timber that is produced, so again, just increasing the harvest back to those rates is not going to have the same employment and economic impacts that it might have at that time," she said.

“Along with that increase in efficiency is that, whether it’s a small, independent logger or Tom, because of the sophistication of the logging equipment and the sophistication of the mills, the paycheck and the standard of living of their employees is a lot higher and it’s a lot safer too," Little said.

“It’s an industry that we see growing into the future. There’s a lot of interest in what going on," Schultz said. "For instance, in some of the mills that we’re invested in, we have a CT scanner. It’s no different than when you break your leg in going to get a CT scan. We can actually CT scan logs. Our owner, Marc Brinkmeyer, likes to say we like to saw from the inside out. We can actually see the knots, the defect inside a log and you have an optimal solution as you’re milling that log as it’s going to the sawmill.

"A lot of the investments you’re going to see in mills with robots in the future are coming from the airline and automobile industries," Schultz said. "You’re going to see greater interest in hiring technicians and engineers, so even as we see that workforce in the sawmills, it’s going to shift. Instead of a guy coming in working for $15 or $16 an hour sweeping floors, you’re going to have robots doing some of that work. You’re going to have engineers and technicians. So the workforce needs are going to shift, but you’re going to see an attraction to many of the younger generation folks that are interested in technology, flying drones, programming robots in sawmills.”

“From the Forest Service perspective, we find ourselves in a place where our higher skills in the forestry and engineering work that we do, we don’t have the workforce because we haven’t been developing that," Probert said. "So we’re looking for ways to accelerate that learning and I think this is really where our potential partnerships with universities, and we’ve talked about how do we use our hiring practices to build students into that workforce of the future together.”

Cheryl Probert, Tom Schultz, Brad Little and Chelsea Pennick McIver were part of a panel at a Western Governors Association workshop Tuesday in Post Falls.

Inland Journal covers local public affairs and other things that interest us. You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play or hear it at the Spokane Public Radio website.