Washington’s Board of Natural Resources is considering banning timber harvesting on state lands. That is extremely unwise. Instead, the board must ensure its healthy forest policies incorporate all management tools including planting, thinning and logging.
The board, established in 1957, sets policies to manage Washington’s 5.6 million acres granted by Congress in 1889. More than 3 million acres were designated as trust lands to support various public institutions of which 2.1 million acres are forests.
Banning timber harvesting robs critical funds from K-12 public schools, timber dependent communities, the universities of Washington and Washington State, the state Capitol building and public agencies such as law enforcement and social services.
Rather than generating much needed timber sales revenues, fighting wildfires costs our state millions and drains our state’s emergency reserves. Those wildfires are fueled by the build-up of dead, downed and diseased trees and ground debris in unhealthy forests.
Healthy forests are important in capturing CO2.
“Our forests are our friends in terms of limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide,” says Matthew Ayres, a professor of biological science at Dartmouth. His research shows that forests can provide sustainable products such as lumber, pulp and fuel while still serving as reservoirs for lots of carbon depending on how forests are managed. His research was based on timber harvests in northeastern states.
Hotter, drier summers and longer fire seasons — combined with unhealthy forests — have led to increases in fire starts and areas burned according to the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Fires in 2014 and 2015 burned nearly 1.5 million acres of public and private forestlands and cost more than $500 million to suppress.
At the federal level, costs of fighting fires jumped from 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget in 1995 to 55 percent last year. Federal wildfire suppression expenses were $2.35 billion in 2021.
Forest fires are part of nature, but they are getting more dangerous and expensive to fight. As fires increase in size and intensity, suppression, environmental restoration and mitigation costs soar. However, special funding requests for natural disasters will become more difficult to obtain as our federal debt soars above $30 trillion.
So, it is time to revisit the way we are overseeing our forests. John Bailey, a professor of forest management at Oregon State University, calculates “megafires” (those consuming 156 square miles) are increasing. He believes “part of the solution is thinning forests through logging, prescribed burns and allowing naturally occurring fires to be managed instead of extinguished.”
Cutting diseased, dead and fire-damaged trees is not new. In intermountain forests, loggers once salvaged beetle-killed trees and sent them to rural sawmills to be cut into two-by-fours. That practice was severely curtailed 30 years ago.
Knowing that mature trees are most susceptible to insects and disease, public forest managers once designed timber sales on small tracts as fire breaks. The logging and subsequent cleanup removed forest fuels which, in recent years, have been allowed to accumulate.
Harvesting helped fund replanting and fire access road construction. Environmental mitigation techniques have dramatically improved, resulting in clean water, healthier air quality, and unencumbered access for fish returning to spawning grounds.
As we look forward to more austere times, we must revise management practices in state and federal forests. We can no longer allow nature to just take its course. There needs to be a more balanced approach which reduces the risk of wildfire.Megafires are polluting our air, endangering our health and safety and burning a bigger hole in our pocketbooks. By thinning, salvaging and logging, we could not only save expenses, but create jobs, bring in needed revenue to the government.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.