Each of the past three years, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has asked state lawmakers to proactively fund wildfire response and projects to make forests less susceptible to wildfires in the first place.
While the two previous proposals she pitched looked to pay for the large financial ask with a fee on insurance policies, Franz says this go-around she chose a different tactic. Last fall, she started working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both sides of the state to brainstorm possible funding mechanisms. At the time, it was looking like the state might have less revenue than once anticipated because of the pandemic.
"In all my communications with legislators east and west, in the House and in the Senate, they all largely agreed on the what: We have to be making these critical investments," Franz says. "Where it wasn't so clear was in how. Everybody had a different idea or comfort level."
But the most recent revenue forecast shows the state is actually doing far better than expected despite the pandemic.
That appears to have given both chambers of the Legislature the wiggle room needed, as both have included $125 million for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in their budget proposals to pay for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience projects. In each proposal the money comes from the general fund.
While the previous iterations of large asks from DNR had emphasized forest restoration and wildfire response, that third piece, community resiliency, was a new addition this year.
"That's a big piece that was not in previous versions," Franz says.
She notes that helping communities build defensible space and become less susceptible to fires was included in this year's effort after the state saw the destruction of the town of Malden in Labor Day firestorms last fall. Some homes there were saved from the blaze, likely due to smart gardening around the properties that kept fire-prone vegetation away from the structures.
While Franz says the proposed one-time $125 million injection for those projects over the next two years is "a transformative initial investment," she hopes to cement the overall priorities in writing.
House Bill 1168 would establish legislative intent to continue paying for that work in future budgets, as it's going to take several years to see meaningful results, Franz says.
Ideally, over time, the state agency won't need as much money for wildfire suppression because the work to make forests and communities less susceptible to fires will pay off by preventing fires, she says. But to get there will take time and investment, which this bill provides, she says.
"This is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution," Franz says. "[The budget item] is really one-time funding. It's substantial and will be critical in our work around response and resilience, but it will not be enough."
Under the bill, which already passed the House unanimously (with two excused), DNR commits to reporting to the Legislature at the end of the biennium how the $125 million from this budget is actually spent. Lawmakers can then choose how they want to keep paying for the work moving forward.
The most recent version of the bill also notes that DNR will invest in workforce development, including growing the talent needed to get qualified applicants for forestry and wildfire response jobs that remain vacant. The department will also work on mapping tools and assistance for small forest landowners, and will improve plans for wildfire aviation support.
WHAT COMES NEXT
The Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill in executive session at 9 am Friday, April 2.
One thing they'll have to debate is an amendment — proposed in a previous committee by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim — that would require DNR to let a third party audit the data and methods it uses to calculate sustainable harvests on managed timberlands throughout the state. Timber sales from those lands create income for public schools and local governments.
The state's most recent sustainable harvest calculation has been taken to court by environmental groups who argue it's not protective enough for wildlife. On the flip side, another lawsuit was filed by timber groups last year arguing the plan didn't allow for enough harvesting.
Franz argues that the amendment is unrelated to the forest health projects the bill centers on, and that the ask could create issues for DNR with the current lawsuits.
"It would be damaging to the state, because the state is in litigation," Franz says. "I’ve already set up a sustainable harvest calculation advisory committee to address concerns that may have been raised by the public out of these lawsuits."
But Van De Wege, a firefighter, argues that forest health and harvests are clearly related.
"Obviously the best way that we keep our forests healthy is by managing them, and that includes an aggressive harvest rotation," Van De Wege says. "If we can have an ambitious harvest rotation on our managed forests, not only does that decrease our forest fire risk, but it also gets our schools more money."
He argues that the audit would only look at sustainable harvest calculations that happen from the point the bill passes forward.
"This is prospective only; it does not look at anything DNR has done in the past," Van De Wege says. "The only reason they should be concerned about their methodology is if it’s so out of industry standards that the state is losing so much money."
Van De Wege has tried to pass similar requirements regarding the harvest calculation in previous sessions, but they have not received support to move forward.
Franz asks why it's necessary to include an effort that hasn't received support before in this widely popular, bipartisan bill.
"Why take a bill that is so hugely popular and so critical to the lives of our public and firefighters and weigh it down with controversial language that is completely unrelated?" Franz asks.