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Reviewing 2021: Hilary Franz on forest health, protecting forests from development

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2021 has been a big year for Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. She convinced the legislature to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years to pay for forest health and wildfire prevention projects. She says her agency is now laying the groundwork needed to do those.“When I first came into the agency, we had one person out of 1,500 doing forest health. We are now having an entire program that will have resources to do forest health work on state land, to help get more resources out on private lands, those small forest landowners, to help with tribes, and also grow our good neighbor agreements with the federal government so we can accelerate the work on federal lands. So we’re right now in the process of hiring. We’re in the process of building the capacity and infrastructure for the program. We’re also building significant metrics in. It’s a great honor to be able to have these resources coming and we have accountability and transparency we must be providing to the public. So that work’s happening while we’re also getting on the ground and doing the forest health work," she said.

Last week, Franz announced another initiative: to protect a million acres of forest land from development over the next 20 years.

“That doesn’t mean that we bring one million acres into public ownership. It means that we’re going to bring the resources and tools to our small forest landowners that have been truly managing these lands for the benefit of all of us, but it isn’t necessarily paying the returns that development will. Three, we need to reforest one million acres. In the last 10 years we’ve lost about three million acres of forest to wildfire. We also know that there’s huge areas that have been harvested before and never replanted, not on public lands, but on private lands. We also know that our urban areas are getting more urbanized and losing that critical tree canopy that helps keep clean air, clean water and also creates a better quality of life. So we’re going to be pushing for reforesting one million acres in the urban and rural areas," she said.

During her Keep Washington Evergreen announcement last week, Franz noted support from a range of groups, from conservation to timber interests. She says her legislation will be introduced in the state House by a Seattle Democrat and in the state Senate by Republican Shelly Short from the mostly rural Seventh District.

“My belief is this is an issue that we should not be divided on. People come and stay and live in Washington state because it is the Evergreen State. They love and value our forests and they depend on them for clean air and clean water and quality of life and they depend on them for jobs. It should not be an issue that is Republican or Democrat, east or west. It’s an issue that I believe we can all get behind and recognize the economic, social and environmental value of our forests and it’s time we actually rise up our voices and say we’re going to stand together to protect the Evergreen State and keep it evergreen," she said.

Even with that broad range of support, Franz says it may be harder to galvanize public opinion around this initiative than it was around the much more expensive forest health and wildfire prevention proposal that has already passed.

“In wildfire it’s been really easier for me to get peoples’ attention about how urgent this crisis is and how it’s growing and it’s only getting worse. It’s not just dollars at stake, but it’s truly lives at stake. It’s harder to get that sense of urgency in the context of conversion of our forests because it’s, honestly, bite sized. We’re seeing death by a thousand cuts but it takes a thousand cuts to feel the true pain of it and that’s why the average citizen doesn’t know that we’ve lost 400,000 acres in the last 12 years," she said.