Guest Columnist

We Have Work to Do: Implementing Washington State's 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan

By Andrea Watts

In October 2017, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released its 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan that outlines its strategy to create healthier, resilient forests in central and eastern Washington. Decades of fire suppression, past forest management practices, and the threat of climate change have resulted in overstocked stands of stressed and dying trees. It will be worth your time to familiarize yourself with the plan, because our industry will play a crucial role in achieving the state’s goal.

“We’re committing to treating 1.25 million acres of unhealthy forests over the next 20 years, and by 2037 our target is to change the trajectory of those forests into healthier conditions,” explains Julie Sackett, the Forest Health and Resiliency Division manager for DNR. “We’re investing a lot of energy and effort to create a new pathway for the state and are looking forward to bringing in many more people to get the job done and building relationships.”

The total treatment area will be divided into target goals of around 62,500 acres per year, and the on-the-ground treatments include prescribed fire, mechanical treatments (precommercial thinning and commercial logging), and mastication. To ensure these treatments will be profitable, particularly precommercial thinning projects, DNR will assist markets for the smaller diameter logs by supporting continued innovation and investment in the forest products sector.

Stable, long-term work is a luxury in our industry, so how can you become one of the chosen contractors for the project?

Forest Health Strategic PlanFirst, familiarize yourself with the priority treatment areas. With DNR’s “all lands all hands” approach, priority areas span jurisdictional boundaries and include state and federal lands, nonprofit ownerships, tribal lands, and small forest landowner holdings.

Forest collaboratives throughout the state are supporting DNR’s management plans and treatment recommendations. These collaboratives hold public meetings to discuss current and future projects, and although spending an evening at a public meeting may be a challenge if you have a 4 a.m. start, it would be worthwhile to attend. You can play a valuable role in moving projects forward by educating citizens about how logging operations are conducted and the rules you follow to protect the landscape. Another advantage, Sackett adds, is the collaboratives get to know the participating contractors, which puts those contractors in a position to learn about jobs.

If you are interested in securing a contract for upcoming projects, read the Forest Health Assessment and Treatment Framework (SB 5546) report that was published in December 2018. DNR outlines the project areas for 2020. For commercial projects on state and federal lands, the bidding process will remain the same. Projects on lands owned by nonprofits are where developing a relationship with a collaborative can prove fruitful since these organizations will use their own contracting system for awarding projects.

There will be a lot of small-scale work on small forest landowner holdings. Sackett says there’s not a “solid pathway” to connect small private landowners with contractors. However, each DNR region maintains a list of contractors who perform precommercial thinning or mastication to help landowners find an appropriate contractor. Although there seems to be a sufficient number of contractors in the northeast region, Sackett explains, “The southeast region is a little bit different . . . It could be that there are contractors in the area, but we don’t know about them or have their contact information.”

There will be plenty of fuels treatment work coming to the western part of the state as well. Although wildfire is touted as an issue in eastern Washington, Western Washington is also vulnerable to wildfires. Creating defensible spaces around homes will be crucial, regardless of location. There are also several collaboratives working to implement treatments in national forests.

One challenge that may prevent DNR from fulfilling its ambitious goal is the inability to find enough commercial contractors to perform the work. Sackett has heard that in northeast Washington, where there is ongoing commercial logging on the Colville National Forest, there aren’t enough contractors for the workload.

“It makes that availability of a skilled workforce even more important to make sure we have the number of folks out there who can do the work in the time we need to be out there conducting it,” she says.

Although our industry is already making headway to address the need for more operators, perhaps the promise of steady work closer to home will entice younger people out into the woods. Another positive outcome from this 20-year plan will be showcasing to the public that our profession is as relevant and necessary as ever.

Andrea Watts is a regular contributor to TimberWest and also the Editor of The North American Wood Fiber Review, and Associate editor for The Forestry Source, published by SAF.

TimberWest November/December 2013
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