“Rural issues are hot right now,” said Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin, as an evening meeting finished up June 8 at the town’s community center.
Which is why he and others in the town of nearly 1,400 are encouraged by and encouraging a new initiative by the state Department of Natural Resources and its newly elected public lands commissioner, Hillary Franz, to make investments in the state’s rural areas, regions that are most dependent on the natural resource lands managed by state and federal agencies for jobs, their economies and revenue for school construction and local government.
While rural areas have the attention of state and national leaders, Rankin and others don’t want to let the opportunity slip away.
Franz, along with other DNR staff, met with about 60 from the community, residents and representatives of county departments, tourism, recreation, the region’s tribes, the U.S. Forest Service, the logging and trucking industry and employees and management of the town’s sawmill, Hampton Lumber Mill. Darrington was the last stop on a two-day tour of the state that flew Franz to Colville, Prosser, Willipa Bay, Port Angeles and Darrington, each reliant on one or more natural resources on the state’s 5.6 million acres of forestlands, rangelands and shorelands.
With those five communities, Franz and the DNR are launching the Rural Communities Partnership Initiative, seeking to work with local governments, businesses and industry, recreational, community and other interests by providing the agency’s assets and expertise to foster a number of development projects in each community.
The initiative has outlined nine focus areas. Of particular interest to Darrington are those concerned with forest health and mill expansion, recreation and community forests.
While Franz said she’s still working to secure funding from lawmakers to fight wildfires this season, the Legislature has appropriated $100,000 each year for the next 16 years to improve the health of 1 million acres of forestland that could generate 3 billion board feet of timber, fighting insects and removing brush that increase the potential for loss from fire. That restoration work, she said, then provides wood for a new product called cross-laminated timber, a high-strength and sustainable construction material.
As part of those efforts, the DNR recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, called Good Neighbor Authority, which seeks collaboration between the state and federal agencies to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration, saving forestlands from fire and allowing for more opportunities for timber sales on state and federal land. A pilot project is under way in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Another Darrington-area initiative started earlier is a network of 20 miles of mountain bike trails on DNR-managed land at North Mountain. The first five miles, with a trailhead four miles from the town center, is scheduled to open in July and is scheduled for completion in two years. DNR is working with Darrington and the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance on the trails.
A program that seeks to preserve working forests and recreation is the agency’s Community Forests Trust. Two such forests — the Teanaway near Cle Elum and the Klickitat Canyon in Klickitat County — are community-managed forests. Working with the DNR, forestlands are purchased from private interests — rather than being sold for residential development — then managed by an advisory committee of local governments and communities for continued resource production, conservation and recreation.
Understandably, some at last Thursday’s meeting expressed skepticism, but there also was interest in the DNR initiative, and community members weren’t hesitant to share their opinions and concerns with Franz and the DNR’s new director of community development, Josh Wilund.
One concern raised with Franz is that teens in Darrington and similar communities no longer see the potential for careers in their hometowns and don’t see opportunities in jobs that rely on resource production. Another wanted to see more done to communicate to those who come to the region’s trails that recreation and resource production are compatible uses.
Franz agreed, and sought local efforts to address those concerns, recognizing those who live and work in these communities as the real authorities.
“The communities know their lands and their people,” she said.
As the state’s largest on-call fire department, firefighting remains a major responsibility for the DNR. But Franz’s work to refocus the agency’s resources on the economies of rural communities reflects a renewed commitment to the stewardship of the state’s public lands through the involvement of the people who live closest to those lands.