Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Milling thinned trees can fund state’s wildfire risk reduction

Key mitigation component …

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Thinning public woodlands to remove millions of dead trees is a way to generate much-needed cash to reduce wildfire risks, improve forest health, and protect rural homeowners and farms. It is money the U.S. Forest Service and Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources don’t have because the bulk of their funds are tied up fighting fires.

Our state’s wildfire severity has worsened in recent years. The 2020 fire season was particularly destructive. Over 1,250 square miles burned in more than 1,600 fires, killing an infant and destroying 298 homes. One blaze nearly wiped out the entire town of Malden, 40 miles south of Spokane.

Smoke from those infernos is a health hazard. For two of the past three years, Washington has experienced some of the worst air quality in the world due to wildfires, Washington’s Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz told state lawmakers last year.

That same year, the Legislature appropriated $125 million to prevent and fight wildfires with instructions to find new funding sources. One is selling dead and diseased trees thinned from densely packed forestlands.

North Central Washington is particularly wildfire prone.

Since 2001, 53 wildfires have exceeded 1,000 acres in Chelan County. At the same time, combustible material, including overcrowded young trees and understory vegetation, has increased, mostly as a result of Forest Service policies to suppress forest fires, reduce thinning and logging, and to limit prescribed burns.

In the Lake Chelan area, community leaders are working with state and federal forest managers to emulate the successful Colville cooperative program.

On the Colville National Forest, Forest Service funding was insufficient to thin overcrowded timber stands until a broad-based group called A-Z Collaborative formed. It is collection of conservationists, local government, business leaders, and foresters that agreed upon a 54,000-acre forest restoration project. The key component is thinning.

After an exhaustive environmental review, the Forest Service awarded a contract to Vaagen Bros. Lumber Inc., a fourth-generation Washington company. Vaagen Bros. expanded its operations in Colville to produce cross-laminated timber and now turns former fire fuels into state-of-the-art building materials. 

A CLT plant is under consideration in Chelan County, but it is expensive. Unlike Colville, it has no existing operating sawmill or log yard to expand. A Chelan facility would cost over $150 million and would require 100 log truck loads per day of small-diameter trees to have an adequate log supply.

Cross-laminated timber has many benefits. It is fire resistant, stronger than conventional timber, reduces atmospheric carbon, offers more flexibility for seismic movement, and is capable of reviving depressed economies in Washington’s rural timber communities.

CLT not only emits less carbon dioxide during the manufacturing but finished wooden buildings help sequester existing carbon for longer periods.

The key to reducing wildfire risk and expanding CLT manufacturing is a reliable and steady supply of thinned trees. Without a long-term flow of trees from federal and state forests, there are no added jobs or no laminated timbers in Chelan County. Instead, the accumulations of wildfire fuels grows, chances increase that more smoke from infernos will be sent aloft, and more tax dollars will be necessary to fight fires.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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