Two Legislative Proposals Tackle Washington’s Forests Challenges »Publications» Washington Policy Center

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Two proposals emerged for the next legislative session to address Washington’s forest health crisis and the impact of recent wildfires. The Outdoor Recreation and Climate Adaptation (ORCA) proposal by Representative Mary Dye, the leading Republican on the House environment committee, would allocate funds from the recently passed climate tax to address unsanitary forests. The entire ORCA program includes other elements related to recreation, cleaning up Puget Sound and reducing the risk of flooding, but forest health funding is delivering on the promise made by lawmakers in 2021 to reduce the risk of flooding. risk of catastrophic forest fires in state forests.

In addition, Land Commissioner Hilary Franz presented the “Keep Washington Evergreen” plan to reforest burnt areas and buy land at risk of being converted into development. His bill calls for capital budget funding to purchase at-risk forest land.

These bills demonstrate that the health and conservation of forests has once again become a major environmental concern in the state. Unlike the timber wars of the 1990s, both proposals are based on the recognition that actively managed forests with thinnings and sustainable harvests are beneficial to the environment.

ORCA – Financing the restoration of forest health

There is a bipartisan agreement that Washington is facing a forest health crisis, with 2.7 million acres of unsanitary forests in central and eastern Washington. Earlier this year, the legislature unanimously passed HB 1168 which creates a budget account to “monitor, track and implement certain targets for forest fire preparedness, prevention and protection”. The legislature has allocated $ 131 million for the 2021-2023 biennium, and HB 1168 notes that “the legislature intends to provide $ 125,000,000 per biennium over the next four biennia for a total of 500 $ 000,000 ”, but does not provide a predictable source of funding for these biennia. .

Additionally, up to 60% of the funding pledged in HB 1168 can be used for firefighting preparedness, rather than for projects that reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. Ultimately, even if the legislature allocates the funding, as little as $ 15.6 million per year could be used for “fire prevention activities to restore and improve forest health and reduce vulnerability to drought. , insect infestations, diseases and other threats to healthy forests. “

Significant progress in dealing with fire-prone and unsanitary forests has been difficult as harvesting and thinning often costs more than it earns, even when part of the revenue from timber is generated. Without a source of funding, there will be very little progress towards reducing the risk of recurring catastrophic forest fires that we have witnessed in recent years. The cost of meeting the goals of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources 20-year forest health plan will likely be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars over the life of the plan.

The ORCA proposal seeks to bridge the gap between what has already been allocated and the funding needed to make forests healthier and more fire resistant in the future. ORCA would allocate $ 125 million per biennium from the revenues created by the state’s new CO2 cap-and-trade tax for forest health projects. This would represent around 14% of the total anticipated revenue from the CO2 tax. Although cap-and-trade legislation allows funding for forest health projects, no funding is dedicated to these types of projects.

Part of the money directed by ORCA would be allocated by a Community Economic Revitalization Council which would finance infrastructure in forest and farming communities. Lack of forest infrastructure, including factory capacity, makes harvesting expensive in some parts of the state. Wood from unsanitary forests is already of low value, and a lack of infrastructure increases costs by making it more difficult to get logs to market.

ORCA funding would also reimburse small forest owners for some of the timber they are required to leave along streams to provide shade. The Forest Riparian Easement Program (FREP) faces a huge backlog of applications due to insufficient funding. Created under the Forestry and Fish Regulations, the goal is to recognize that society benefits from fresh waterways and salmon habitat, so the cost of these regulations should be paid by the taxpayers rather than imposing the full cost on families. Currently, there are over 100 forestry projects awaiting FREP funding, amounting to $ 10.4 million.

The combination of these projects would help reduce the environmental impacts of rising temperatures, while keeping forest vapors cool, boosting the state’s logging capacity, and funding projects that restore the health of Washington’s forests. .

Land Commissioner’s Plan to Restore Burnt Land and Prevent Conversion

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz also presented a plan to reforest land scorched by forest fires and prevent the loss of forest land for development. Franz is asking for $ 1 million to fund planning to improve the health of one million acres of forest and to replant an additional one million acres by 2040.

The proposal also includes $ 25 million in the capital budget to create a “rapid response fund to acquire critical forest lands at risk of permanent conversion.” The briefing for Natural Resources Department staff notes that between 2007 and 2019, around 400,000 acres of forest land was converted to some form of development. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of land at risk of conversion is found within or near the limits of urban growth.

Although the plan says it will “take advantage of the potential of carbon markets, other voluntary tools and incentives,” the creation of the fund recognizes that landowners can earn more by developing land than by keeping it in the land. forestry. Taxpayer assistance is intended to bridge the gap between present value and potential value once developed.

While this funding will help prevent some land from being developed, it is a band-aid that does not address the underlying challenges that make forestry economically risky. The simple problem that forest lands face under the pressure of growth is that the value of housing and development increases as demand continues to exceed supply.

This is compounded by the lack of forestry infrastructure – including loggers and truck drivers – making it difficult for those who want to keep their lands in forestry while earning an income. The proposal by some environmental groups to shut down all timber harvesting on state-owned land in western Washington would compound this problem by reducing the market for companies and workers who provide services to logged forests.

Family foresters are caught between increasing incentives to convert and increasing challenges in bringing timber to the market. No single law will solve this problem.

Development rights transfer, where landowners are paid for rights that are moved and facilitate construction elsewhere, is a good tool that preserves the value of land for families while maintaining the ability to build houses to meet growing demand.

The Commissioner’s proposal recognizes the value of logged forests, and that is very positive. The goals of one million acres preserved and restored, and the long two-decade deadline, are more political than realistic. The balance between housing costs, logged forests and forest restoration is an important discussion even if the scope of the proposal is unrealistic.

Conclusion

The threats posed by fires and economic pressure on Washington’s forests have become more apparent in recent years. By focusing on a predictable source of income, the ORCA plan secures future funding to address Washington’s forest health crisis. A long-term source of income is needed if the state is to tackle the huge backlog of work that needs to be done in state forests.

The Keep Washington Evergreen proposal sets ambitious targets, but funding is unlikely to make significant progress in meeting those targets, in part because the legislation does not address the underlying causes of forest conversion. The intention of the legislation is positive, however, and it would help combat reforestation of burnt areas.

It is positive that both proposals recognize the need to take action to improve the health and sustainability of Washington’s forests and that logged forests are good for both our economy and the environment.


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