NE Washington forests diseased, infested

WENATCHEE — Large areas of forests in northeast Washington are in danger of catastrophic wildfires because trees have been killed or weakened by bug infestations, the state Department of Natural Resources warns.

Landowners should thin the trees or harvest timber to restore more normal forest conditions, Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said in an Aug. 23 forest health hazard warning to landowners in portions of Okanogan, Ferry, Klickitat and Yakima counties.

It is the first forest health hazard warning since the Legislature authorized the action in 2007 as a means for addressing insect and disease infestations, The Wenatchee World reported Friday.

A century of fire suppression has led dense forests of Douglas fir to replace forests once dominated by insect-resistant Ponderosa pines. Dense forests stress individual trees, leaving them vulnerable to western spruce budworm and pine bark beetles.

Under the warning, notification letters went out to 6,500 private landowners offering help from the Department of Natural Resources. Professional foresters may help assess the risks, set goals and recommend harvesting or thinning tree stands.

Of more than 1 million acres now under warning status, the vast majority is public land. That includes nearly 675,000 acres are national forests, almost 20,000 acres managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, about 180,000 acres of state DNR trust land, and almost 11,000 acres of other public property. Privately held land includes about 173,500 acres of small forested family-owned properties and over 31,000 acres of company-owned or industrial forestland.

Without action, about 2.8 million acres of forest land — about one-third of eastern Washington’s forests — will see significantly more trees killed by insects or disease over the next 15 years, the department estimated.

Participation is voluntary.

“We can’t say the word ‘voluntary’ often enough,” said Washington State Forester Aaron Everett, who chaired the forest health technical advisory committee. He said some people who receive a letter may have few bug problems, but for those with major infestations, “We’re here to help.”

Funding of $4.3 million from a state jobs bill is available.

Historically, in the areas now under a warning, about 347,800 acres were forested with more mature, open forests, and today there are only about 88,200 acres of these more open Ponderosa stands, Everett said.

Ironically, past firefighting has increased the risk of catastrophic fires. Forests are denser with more trees competing for water and becoming bug-infested.

“I can’t say it too much: Thin them,” said Connie Mehmel, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest entomologist and a member of the committee,

“The purpose of the forest health warning is really to prevent further damage,” Mehmel said, adding, “It’s not that there isn’t work to do almost everywhere. There is. But resources are limited. As a group, we had to pick out the areas where maybe we could get ahead of the game a little, instead of trying to chase the problem.”

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