OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday that fire suppression and climate change have made forests unhealthy, as lawmakers consider directing the Department of Natural Resources to draw up a long-range plan to thin forests through logging and controlled burns.
The state’s 2016 wildfire season was modest compared to 2015, but 459 square miles still burned. In the previous year, a record 1,777 square miles burned, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, a federal and state partnership.
Fielding questions at a press conference, Inslee cited wildfires as evidence that, “My state is getting hurt by climate change right now.”
He acknowledged that suppressing fires also has contributed to raging wildfires.
“The overly dense forests are largely attributable to our suppression efforts,” Inslee said.“So, yes, we have to do some management in the forest, but we also have to attack it at the source, which is carbon pollution.”
The governor’s proposed two-year budget includes $30 million to DNR and another $15 million to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for thinning forests. The money, under the plan, would come from a new tax on carbon emissions.
Lawmakers have not embraced Inslee’s previous proposals to tax carbon to encourage reductions in greenhouse gases and pay for government programs, including education. It’s also unclear whether legislators will support spending more to thin forests.
According to DNR, the state has spent about $400 million fighting fires since 2009 and about $21 million thinning forests.
The U.S. Forest Service and Nature Conservancy estimated in 2014 that about 3 million acres need to be thinned, including 2.7 million in Eastern Washington.
While WDFW has conducted controlled burns on lands it manages, DNR gave up the practice in the 1990s because of complaints about air pollution and smoke spoiling spring days.
This year, DNR is asking lawmakers for $14 million to thin 30,000 acres over the next two years.
“We’re continuing to see an overall deterioration in the health of our forests, and it’s evident by the number of wildfires,” DNR forest health policy adviser Loren Torgenson said.
House and Senate bills call for DNR to conduct its own assessment and identify which parcels should be thinned first.
DNR should place a high priority on thinning projects that protect farms and ranches, according to one proposal.
DNR supports the bills, though the department’s legislative director Dave Warren estimated thinning 100,000 acres or more a year to catch up will cost take two-year appropriations of $30 million to $50 million.
“We want to get some realistic numbers, some realistic approaches,” he said.
Supporters of controlled burns say that Washington lags behind other states in thinning forests. They argue managed fires will reduce the number of large wildfires and reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.
“We need a cultural shift in thinking about wildfire,” said Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee. “A shift from being reactive to wildfire to being proactive.”