Throughout the western United States, including Washington State, the health of our forests has been in decline for several decades. This means that our forests are less able to provide ecological functions, less sustainable, less resilient, less able to meet land manager objectives and less resistant to invasive species, insects, diseases and fire.
How We Got Here
At a broad scale, this state of decline can be attributed to past management practices, including past fire management practices, that have resulted in uncharacteristically overstocked forests; and episodic droughts that have increased the competition among trees for available moisture, resulting in increased stress and loss of vigor.
Fires in these densely packed and moisture-stressed forests often burn with uncharacteristic severity and duration. This is partly due to accumulation of dense and continuous fuels. Wildfires are fueled, for example, by trees killed by insects and diseases.
Our Current Situation
Much of the 10 million acres of forestland in eastern Washington faces serious threats to forest health. An analysis by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service identified nearly 2.7 million acres of eastern Washington forestland requiring some sort of treatment to create forests more resilient against insects, diseases and wildfires.
The acres of trees that have been killed or damaged in the first decade of the 2000s was 150 percent greater than the 1990s and 200 percent greater than in the 1980s. The National Insect and Disease Risk Map (NIDRM) shows elevated levels of damage will continue.
Assessments of forest health in eastern Washington show that current treatment levels and approaches are inadequate to significantly reduce the risk to forest ecosystems and communities.
The state experienced record-breaking wildfire seasons in 2014 and 2015. In 2015, wildfires cost state taxpayers $89 million. Predictions indicate that the Pacific Northwest may experience four times more acres burned by wildfires annually within the century.
Accelerating the planning and implementation of forest health treatments across eastern Washington, and doing so at the landscape-scale, is critical to reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire and improving forest health conditions. That’s why, in 2016, the Washington State Legislature directed the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to craft a strategic framework and plan to address the problem.
Sharing Washington’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington
On Oct. 25, 2017, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, with the help of the stakeholders who helped to craft the plan, shared a 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan designed to accelerate planning and implementation of forest health treatments to improve the ecological functions of forest ecosystems and the economic climate for rural communities and the people of Washington State.
It would not have been possible to address the forest health issue in a meaningful, coordinated, strategic fashion without the broad range of stakeholders and partners who participated in the plan. A diverse steering committee conducted analyses, evaluated data, drafted elements of the plan, and provided recommendations. Steering committee members met regularly over several months throughout the planning effort. Representing 33 unique organizations, they worked to bring a spectrum of perspectives and varied expertise to meetings that spanned our state — Chelan, Colville, Ellensburg, Olympia and Stevenson.
The plan will rely on commitment from many parties – state and federal agencies, conservation groups, timber industry, private landowners, tribes and other stakeholders—to take an approach that emphasizes strategically focused forest health treatments in priority landscapes to achieve its mission, goals and strategies.
It will also require working at large scales across land ownership boundaries, with unprecedented degrees of collaboration among landowners with diverse management objectives.
Welcome Forest Health Advisory Committee
Many of the original 33 organizations that participated in the plan’s creation have agreed to continue to play a role as a part of the State’s new Forest Health Advisory Committee. Having witnessed the success of the legislative-directed Wildfire Advisory Committee, the Legislature acted again in 2017, with the support of the Department, to replicate that model for forest health efforts.
This new committee will advise Public Lands Commissioner Hilary S. Franz on the implementation of the plan and forest health treatments across Washington. Comprising 22 individuals representing as many organizations and agencies, it will continue to bring diverse perspectives forward and set the stage for strong partnerships in the future.
More Than Ever, Washington is Set Up for Success
Land management agencies have been actively implementing forest health treatments in eastern Washington for some time. However, recent estimates suggest that at current treatment rates it would have likely taken 53 years to address the existing restoration needs on federal lands alone. We need to pick up the pace of treatments across all land ownerships or we will continue to fall farther behind.
The 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, Forest Health Advisory Committee and continued support from the Washington State Legislature will allow for meaningful wildfire risk reductions and forest health improvements by prioritizing watersheds, coordinating activities and focusing investments using a landscape-scale, cross-boundary approach. As the Department successfully leads such efforts our state will begin to benefit from reduce tree deaths and high-severity wildfires over time, especially in our overgrown, driest, highest-risk forest areas.
Learn more about the plan’s vision, mission and overarching strategy here: www.dnr.wa.gov/ForestHealthPlan.