On the Hot Seat: More money isn't the answer to fires

Roger Harnack

Last week, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz requested $55 million in fire-related funds in her agency’s proposed 2019-21 budget.
To many, the request sounds good. And why not?
It about doubles the amount in the state’s wildfire fighting budget and provides hope to residents who have for the last several years dealt with flames, smoke and evacuations.
But the move is only a smoke screen hiding inadequate forest management practices. It also gives the commissioner “cover” from her previous work at Futurewise, an extreme environmental group that sued the state more than 30 times over timber-harvest issues in recent decades. (Franz was the executive director and an attorney for that organization before being elected to lead the state Department of Natural Resources.)
Now, as state lands commissioner, Franz wants more money from state coffers. And she wants to grow the employee ranks of her agency.
She is requesting $11.9 million to convert 3-4 month seasonal firefighting positions to year-round, full-time jobs in the next biennium, followed by an additional $3.17 million annually after 2021. Her budget also seeks $6.25 million to buy two more helicopters for fire suppression, plus an additional $1.34 million annually after 2021.
She wants $5.76 million to create a Forest Health division in her agency in the next two years, plus an additional $2.99 million every year thereafter.
Franz is asking for $17.7 million over the next two years to “treat” 32,000 acres of wildfire fuels, and an additional $4.27 million to assist landowners. Shifting jobs around, she also wants another $2.34 million annually to continue the program after 2021.
She wants $1.93 million in the 2019-21 biennium to educate the public about fire prevention, plus an additional $938,000 annually after that.
And the list goes on.
While all that may sound good, it doesn’t address the core problem — the lack of responsible forest management.
Natural Resources continues to buy large tracts it cannot manage. It continues to use cumbersome regulations to delay and/or prevent timber harvests necessary for forest health and for maintaining rural economies. It continues to gate or close decades-old forest roads, thereby inhibiting residents from collecting downed timber and contributing to the deterioration of those access routes.
There is one item in her budget request that makes sense — funding correctional camps, in which non-violent prison inmates would be used to help with fire camps and in firefighting. That budget request is for $4.83 million in the next two years and an additional $1.23 million thereafter. If this comes to pass, we should be able to save that money in state correctional budgets.
But again, the budget request is nothing more than a smokescreen covering for failed forest management and expansion of the state agency’s employee ranks.
As a journalist, I was at Ground Zero in the Carlton Complex wildfire in 2014 and the Tunk Block and Okanogan fires of 2015. Those events started as smaller fires that grew together on state and federally managed lands. Poor decisions by government land managers — both before and during the fires — resulted in small blazes blowing up out of control.
Sure you can argue government land management agencies didn’t have the resources to keep those and more recent fires in check. But that argument doesn’t hold water if you consider the condition of forests prior to ignition.
Franz is glib when she talks about the need for forest health improvements — her firefighting budget talks about “treatment,” but only peripherally touches on commercial timber harvest and commercial thinning.
She talks about a need for “bold, forward-thinking investments to reduce wildfires.” But the firefighting budget is really more of the same — spend money for problems resulting from failed management, and only touch on meaningful management.
Sure, we will be better off with more funding for actual firefighting efforts here in Eastern Washington. But just addressing fires without substantial changes to forest management practices in our state is only putting a Band-Aid on the problem. And it’s too little, too late.
Before the Legislature gives Franz and Natural Resources increased funding in the next biennium, the agency should have to show a plan allowing more commercial harvests/thinning and restoration of forest access. Lawmakers should also insist on a halt to the agency’s continued land grabs and ever-growing employee ranks.
Lawmakers should also insist that state residents and local businesses be contacted first when the agency needs additional firefighting resources.
Having a silviculture-based forest management plan and increased accessibility should come before more money.

— Roger Harnack is the regional publisher of the Statesman-Examiner and Deer Park Tribune. Email him at publisher@statesmanexaminer.com.