Don Jenkins/Capital Press File
The Washington Department of Natural Resources plans to thin 1.25 million acres of wildlands in Eastern Washington over the next 20 years, signaling a major shift in policy, according to a state lawmaker who has been among the agency’s sharpest critics.
Rep. Joel Kretz, an Okanogan County Republican, said huge firefighting bills and a change in DNR leadership has spurred support for controlled burns. It also helped that smoke from far away wildfires this summer blanketed Seattle, he said.
“Frankly, I’m not sorry Seattle got smoked out,” Kretz said. “It sort of drove the problem home to folks who didn’t have it foremost on their minds.”
The forest plan, released this week, responds to a push by rural lawmakers to reduce the damage of what the DNR calls “uncharacteristic wildfires” in recent summers. Damage to agriculture has been heavy. In 2015, Washington’s worst fire season ever, wildland fires in Okanogan County alone killed an estimated 3,850 cattle, according to figures the state supplied to federal authorities.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts controlled burns on land it manages, but DNR largely stopped two decades ago amid concerns about air quality. Kretz and other legislators have championed bills over the past two years directing DNR to restart the use of fire to remove undergrowth that feeds wildfires.
DNR’s new forest policy embraces both controlled burns and logging to make fires less severe.
Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who was elected in November, said forests are overgrown. Thinning them will save lives and jobs, and improve the environment, she said.
“If we fail to do this work, we face formidable wildfire seasons in an increasingly difficult climate,” Franz said in a written statement.
Kretz credited Franz, a Democrat, with changing DNR’s direction. Before elected lands commissioner, Franz was executive director of the environmental group Futurewise, an organization focused on enforcing the state’s Growth Management Act.
“No one had lower expectations than I, but she’s actually been a breath of fresh air,” Kretz said. “I’ve been really impressed with Hilary Franz’s willingness to work on this.”
The plan does not provide a detailed blueprint for when or where thinning will take place. The plan does pledge to accelerate thinning and presents a case for the economic and environmental benefits. For example, wood logged from forests could provide pellets for cleaner-burning wood stoves or cross-laminated timber for classrooms, according to the plan.
The plan notes the Legislature will be asked to regularly appropriate money to fund the activities. The federal government, tribes and private landowners also may have to pitch in, according to plan.
Kretz said he hopes some revenue from logging will be set aside for further thinning projects. “My goal is to make it more self-sustaining,” he said.
The plan focuses on Eastern Washington because that’s where the fires have been most damaging. DNR says it’s committed to also evaluating forest conditions in Western Washington.