Commentary: Rather than fee to fight fires, thin the forests

A lack of forest management has led to a buildup of fuels that feed destructive and costly wildfires.

By Don Healy / For The Herald

Recently, Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz proposed that a $5.04 surcharge be added to every home and auto insurance policy issued in Washington to raise $63 million dollars to fight forest fires and for reforestation (“Lands commissioner proposes insurance fee for wildfire fund,” The Herald, Dec. 2).

This approach is misguided on at least two counts. First, there is a total disconnect between the source and the purpose of the money raised. Second, specified use of the funds will do very little to solve the problem being targeted.

The problem is one of a lack of forest management since the late 1970s leading to a massive buildup in the fuel load on our nation’s forest lands, most of which are in federal ownership.

Currently our fuel load is 57 percent greater in 2012 than it was in 1953, and probably now exceeds 60 percent, much of it overstocked and stagnate, leading to insect infestation and disease, and of course higher fire risk. (The U.S. Forest Service takes our nation’s forest inventory every 10 years.) Thus, our problem is not reforestation for the most part, but just the opposite; we desperately need to start thinning our forests.

A look at acreage of land burned in wildfires from 1926 to 2017, shows more than 50 million acres burned in both 1930 and 1931, but a less than 10 million acres burned annually since the 1950s, with recent increases in the last 20 years. We can follow the trend in forest fires from overstocked conditions in the 1920s to 1950s, to managed forests in the 1960s through 1990s, and back to the increase in fuel load today. From this, we can conclude that if we do nothing, dealing with massive forest fires will become “the new normal,” and will not subside until we take action.

It is obvious that we need to start thinning our forests, with the biggest problem being funding. Thinning is a very expensive process and even with the $63 million proposed in the commissioner’s suggestion, the future increase in the fuel load will overwhelm the funds available; over time most of these funds will have to be diverted to firefighting efforts.

However, there is a solution to this problem. Much of the area needing thinning contains merchantable as well as non-merchantable material. Were we to encourage a modest resurgence in the forest products industry, we could create markets for the material that can be sold. As is already done east of the Cascades, we could use selective harvesting methods to thin the forest and remove trees affected by insects and disease to dramatically improve the overall vitality of our forests and to make them more fire resistant.

Using this approach, it is possible to thin many times the acreage treated compared to thinning only. Besides a healthier forest, we also create numerous jobs on both the harvest crews and for those would work in the mills. Currently, the U.S. annually imports about $20 billion worth of lumber products while we let our forests burn. In farming, we frequently hear the mantra that we should buy local; should not the same philosophy apply to forest products.

Don Healy has a bachelor’s degree in forest management from Oregon State University. He lives in Lynnwood.

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