2.7M Acres of Forest Need Treatment: How Do We Accomplish That?

"Cooperation" was the word of the day in Wenatchee at the end of July, as local and state leaders came together to celebrate the implementation of a new forest health bill in Washington.

The bill lays out a plan for cooperation between the state Department of Natural Resources and the state Legislature to accomplish long-term forest-health-restoration goals on publicly owned land across the state. In doing so, it sets the stage for healthier forests and safer, more economically vibrant communities. 

State Sen. Brad Hawkins, who sponsored the bill, said he was inspired by the Wenatchee-based Wildfire Project to tackle the daunting task of treating a million acres of state-owned fire-prone land over the next decade-and-a-half. The Wildfire Project sponsored the Era of Megafires presentation that has been making its way around the state this year, including multiple screenings at the Legislature in Olympia this past winter. 

 Glow from the Twisp River Fire during night-time burn-out operation. Photo © John Marshall.

July's event at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center included a panel discussion featuring Sen. Hawkins, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, our Legislative Director Tom Bugert and other local and state forest-health leaders. In a preview to the event, the Wenatchee World Editorial Board praised local efforts in North-Central Washington to address wildfire risk to forest communities, including implementing "Firewise" measures and building awareness through the Era of Megafires presentation. Panelists also commended North-Central Washington communities for proactively addressing the threat of wildfire and inspiring more aggressive action at the state level through organizations such as the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative.

Treating a million acres will take time, Sen. Hawkins acknowledged during a radio interview with KOHO 101. “It’s taken many, many years for us to get into this situation,” he said. “It’s going to take many years to get out of it.”

Commissioner Franz, head of the state Department of Natural Resources, said on the KOHO radio interview that forest health is DNR’s No. 1 priority. She tweeted her thanks to attendees of the late-July event, saying that managing for healthier forests is “a big job, but easier with your help!”

More than 2.7 million acres of forest in Washington need treatment — including state, federal and tribal-owned forests. Commissioner Franz said Sen. Hawkins’s bill provides a plan for DNR to check in with the Legislature to prioritize the state-owned areas most in need of treatment every two years. Additionally, a “Good Neighbor” agreement signed with the U.S. Forest Service earlier this year allows DNR to cooperate with that agency to manage the millions of acres of federally owned forest as well. 

Thinning to restore forest health in Central Washington. Photo © Nathan Hadley.

What is Thinning?

For an in-depth scientific look at restoring forests to a more fire-resilient state using technological tools of the forestry trade, check out this post on our Cool Green Science blog.

Treating the forest with its long-term health in mind includes a few tools, one of which is mechanical thinning. This means cutting down some trees — often smaller ones — which reduces the amount of fuel a potentially catastrophic fire would use to burn through the landscape. Because humans have excluded fire from the landscape for the past century or more, many smaller-diameter trees have grown in spaces where they wouldn’t historically have grown, over-stocking our forests with this fuel. When a fire catches, this level of overstock means it may quickly grow out of control. 

A second treatment tool for forest health is prescribed burning.  After removing smaller trees, a prescribed or controlled burn may be used to help set the forest back into a rhythm where smaller, low-intensity, lower-smoke fires burn through periodically. These lower-intensity fires pose much lower risk to communities located near forests and help prevent the “overstock” situation that can cause naturally occurring wildfires to become catastrophic. (Prescribed burns still produce smoke, of course, but nothing like the smoke that we experienced from the unplanned fires burning in our state and those that blew smoke in from British Columbia.)

Prescribed fire in ponderosa pine forest in fall on Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan Count. Treatment unit is Conner 5, which had been logged and thinned in winter prior. Seth Midkiff is pictured lighting the fire with a drip torch. Photo © John Marshall.

Economic Impact:

Our forest restoration work in the Central Cascades has infused the local economy with nearly $1 million since late 2014.  Learn more about our work breaking the cycle of megafire.

These forest-health practices support jobs and rural economic vitality by employing loggers, foresters and prescribed-fire professionals to work on the ground restoring the landscape toward a more wildfire-resilient state. In addition, the forest restoration goals set by DNR and its partners will also support private enterprises in rural Washington. The removal of small-diameter trees from millions of acres of forest land could encourage the revitalization of the regional mill infrastructure needed to process that timber. That’s one upside to the daunting scale of the task in front of us: Restoration thinning on these many acres could mean a steady supply of wood to mills for decades to come, meaning jobs for mill workers and a brighter economic future for rural Washington. 

Want to learn more about fire and forest health in Washington? Join us for a free outdoor presentation of the "Era of Megafires" in Roslyn on Friday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m., sponsored by the Kittitas Fire Adapted Communities Coalition.