Washington twice failed to pass dedicated funding for forest management

While more than four million acres actively burn across the West, the debate over what’s fueling these historic fires is heating up.

President Donald Trump puts the blame squarely on poor forest management. Gov. Jay Inslee called them climate fires. Forest scientists say it’s both.

Despite some politicians’ efforts, poor forest health cannot be blamed on a single administration’s decisions. Experts say it has been developing for decades and climate change is making it worse.

More than half a million acres burned in Washington this month, destroying homes and killing a 1-year-old toddler. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz emotionally told Q13 News she is taking on the fight to fix the state’s forests on behalf of the Hyland family, who lost their son.

“Too often in fires, tragedy like this happens and we quickly forget, the fall comes, the winter comes, people forget we even had smoke-filled skies, they forget the fires that threatened our communities, they forget the Maldens, they forget our firefighters - we lost one last year, you’ll remember - they forget,” Franz said. “My job is to make sure no one, our leaders at the state and local level, our public citizens, do not forget that our No. 1 priority is to protect our communities and protect our firefighters.”

For two years, Franz, a Democrat, has fought for dedicated funding for her 20-year forest management plan, which includes proactive forest treatments like prescribed burns. 

Research foresters agree that a century of fire suppression in the forests has helped create the tinderbox we live in today.

“Immediately, there will probably be very, very little benefit, probably because so little of the landscape will have been brought under some kind of management, but over time, over time, it really will yield benefits,” U.S. Forest Service Research Forester Mark Finney said of forest management.

For two years, however, Franz’s proposals have failed to pass committees controlled by her own political party. 

She has hoped to secure funding through a surcharge on insurance policies, but the insurance industry, which has lobbied against her proposals, say her plan didn’t have a great deal of support from either party. 

“Whether it’s 50 cents or $10 a month is less important than why would we target one individual group of consumers to foot the bill for a forest health plan that’s intended to benefit everyone,” said Kenton Brine of NW Insurance Council.

Without a dedicated funding source, Franz is left fighting over general funds, now depleted by COVID-19, in a state with many urgent needs. 

When the urgency of this fire crisis gets put out, will legislators choose to invest upfront in the future health of forests or pay the tab later on another costly emergency response?

A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources said the primary focus of the department is dealing with the current crisis at hand, the fires. A new plan to push for large investments in forest health will have to wait until the immediate crisis is over.