Eastern Washington forests need collaboration and restoration to return to health

Op-ed by Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Published in the Spokesman-Review.

Our federal forests are withering away from neglect, insects and disease, and nowhere is this more true than in Eastern Washington.

A staggering third of our country’s national forest land managed by the U.S. Forest Service is diseased or dying.  In the Colville National Forest alone, 300,000 of the forest’s 1.1 million acres are bug infested.

After infestations in Okanogan, Klickitat, Yakima, and Ferry counties, the Washington Department of Natural Resources has declared forest health-hazard warnings.  Our state estimates that devastating tree die-offs will impact a third of Eastern Washington’s forests over the next 15 years.

While federal, state and local leaders are aware of the crisis, what sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is that federal forest mismanagement is what got us into this mess.

The Colville National Forest, for instance, is the economic driver for Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, and yet employment in the forest has dropped by 70 percent in the last two decades.  Timber production in the forest is down two-thirds from its production in the late 1980s.

Decades of neglect of our federal forests has left them overcrowded, sick, fire-prone and susceptible to insects and disease.

However, there is a silver lining; active forest management and restoration can help heal our forests, and momentum is shifting this direction.

I’ve been working with local stakeholders and the Forest Service on an innovative public-private approach to revive Colville National Forest. Last fall, through the “A to Z” Mill Creek Pilot Project, the U.S. Forest Service awarded a 10-year contract to a local lumber company to harvest timber on 55,000 acres of the Colville National Forest.  Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. in Colville will pay $1 million up front for the right to purchase $30 million of timber, a project designed to restore the forest, reduce the risk of forest fires and strengthen our rural economy.

This project was two years in the making, and the proposed public-private partnership will make Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties a model for the rest of the country.

Gov. Jay Inslee will also play an important role in coming months.  As part of the Farm Bill approved by Congress earlier this year, governors have until April 8 to request federal forest lands in their state as in need of treatment for insects and disease.  If Gov. Inslee requests the federal government to designate Washington forest lands for treatment under the Farm Bill, it increases the likelihood those lands will eventually be restored and improved.

The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, has an opportunity to improve forest health not just in Washington, but across the country.

I was an original sponsor of H.R. 1526, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which was passed by the House last fall. The legislation directs the Forest Service to meet specific harvest levels in certain areas, will help improve forest health and prevent catastrophic wildfires. At the same time, it extends supplemental Secure Rural Schools payments for one year, and would improve local forest management by allowing counties to manage portions of National Forest land through the creation of “Community Forest Demonstration Areas.”

Now it’s up to the Senate to move the ball forward.

By federal, state and local leaders working together, we can begin to restore our federal forests and provide stable, sustainable revenue for the benefit of local communities.

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