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Fire, Forests, and Resilience: Lessons from the Evergreen State ~ An Interview with Hilary Franz

We spend so much time arguing about right and wrong, with righteousness and political jargon. We waste so much time on that! And we don’t have time to waste.

Carpe Diem West has been following the visionary leadership of Hilary Franz, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, for some time. Our interest was piqued when we heard about Commissioner Franz’s dedicated forest health and wildfire funding proposal in the 2019 legislative session.

We sat down with her to talk fire, water, climate disruption – and most importantly, community and statewide solutions.

The forecast is for a grim wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest this summer. Our health, our water supply, our rivers and critters all depend on healthy forests. We’re lucky to have smart, dedicated public servants like Commissioner Franz working to keep our forests resilient and communities protected.

Washington is experiencing big climate, fire, and water impacts – what does that look like on the ground?

At the government level, our agency is on the front lines of a rapidly changing climate – whether it’s floods or fires or forest health. We’ve had 350 fires so far this year, 50 percent on the  “wet” west side of the Cascades. It’s a catch-your-breath kind of moment when in the second week in March we had 53 fires west of the Cascades. These are in places like Grays Harbor, places I remember as a child being dark and damp and rainy in March. I have firefighters who’ve been doing this work for 30 years say they’ve never seen anything like it. In 2018, we had 1,850 wildfires, which was a record high, and 40 percent of those were west of the Cascades.

We’re used to seeing fires in central and eastern Washington, but what we’re seeing is unprecedented because of the drought and disease conditions. For example, in the context of forest health, I saw hundreds of acres of seemingly healthy forest in Kittitas County that was dead three months later because of moth kill. So it’s not just fire. We are the Evergreen State for a reason, but we are seeing the state turn brown before our eyes.  

We manage 2 million acres of forest and 1 million acres of agricultural land. On those landscapes, we are experiencing drought-like conditions, year after year. It’s having a big impact on water supplies at key times of year. We also manage 2.6 million acres of aquatic lands, and we are seeing ocean acidification on the front lines. Fire season, which used to only be roughly three months each year, now stretches from April to October. Everything is changing, including how early we need to train our firefighters.

Is understanding growing about the connections between climate disruption, forests, fire and water?

Yes – at both the community and governmental level we are focusing on adaptation and resilience. We just completed a resiliency assessment for all 6 million acres of land we manage. We did the assessment with a clear understanding of what we’re already seeing. We’ve begun having conversations at the community level as we develop a climate resilience plan for the state. It’s not enough to take care of the 6 million acres we manage. We need to work with communities like those in central and eastern Washington to strengthen them and help them become more resilient.

Having done this work for many years where climate change felt “out there,” like a crisis that would come down the road, now it’s here. It’s really here. We are really moving from one crisis to another.

So we are now trying to get on top of it and not just respond to it – to be more proactive. Because there is so much at risk, so many high costs, and so much more damage. Proactively addressing forest health and other issues that contribute to the wildfire crisis is so much smarter, and that’s what we are doing with our Forest Health 20-Year Strategic Plan, salmon recovery work and clean energy work.

How do we pay for these visionary resilience solutions?

So, just to start with how it’s been: In the past, we have gotten minimal dollars upfront for wildfire preparedness. We’ve literally been fighting fires in every corner of the state seven months out of the year lacking the resources we need. For example, we only eight helicopters to cover the entire state, and they all fought in the Vietnam War.

This year, I went to the Legislature with a short list and a long list of requests. And I got my short list, which is very good news.

This year, we got $50 million for wildfire protection, which includes two more helicopters. We are also hiring 30 more firefighters who, when they’re not fighting fires, will be doing forest health work. For context, between 2005 and 2012 we treated 30,000 acres of forest. Last year, we treated 35,000 acres, and this year we’ll do 50,000 acres, so we are rapidly accelerating this work. Today, we are agnostic to property lines, and partnering with U.S. Forest Service so we can do projects on federal lands, as well. We are also doing salmon habitat restoration, including culvert removal.

On the long list: I pushed hard for a dedicated funding source for wildfire and forest health work. We know we need this because of the growth of catastrophic fire. That legislation, Senate Bill 5996, would have created dedicated funding though  .52 percentage point surcharge on property and casualty insurance premiums, which has a direct nexus with the damage wildfires inflict. And, it was a way to spread the cost across all of us, and have it be very minimal for the average household – less than $2 per month. While that didn’t pass this year, I will be back for a dedicated funding stream and I’ll be looking again at the full suite of options for that funding. My goal is to return our smoke-free summers to everyone in Washington. We need dedicated funding to do the work necessary to achieve that goal.

What gives you hope as you face these huge challenges?

What gives me hope is that we are proactively building a plan for resilience, where often times we’ve been in a place of reaction.

Our agency is building the first wildfire resilience plan for the state, as I mentioned, and we’re not just going to keep it inside our agency. We’re going to be working actively with communities across the state. Our message is: Together we can help your community be more resilient, and our state can be much stronger environmentally and economically in the face of climate change.

This is so important for everyone in Washington, not just the central Puget Sound, but areas on the front lines in central and eastern Washington. In 2017 and 2018, we had smoke – the worst air quality in the world at one point – in central Puget Sound, but that’s what eastern Washington has been experiencing for years.

Now, the wildfire crisis has captured the attention of the entire state. Everyone realizes we are in crisis and we have a clear plan to stem catastrophic fires and protect our communities. If we can leverage that plan and implement it, that will set us up to be more successful in the future.

What also gives me hope is that our agency looks not just at forest health and fires (which is our first priority), but also at the water resource side and innovative energy side. We have done 21 wind leases and just did the largest solar farm lease in Washington state.

These projects create jobs, and when we put them on public lands we generate revenue for schools to the tune of up to a 98,000 percent increase in revenue! Clean energy works for the economic and social good as much as it does for the environment.

And people are responding. We spend so much time shouting about the headlines – here’s the problem and we have the answer. Instead, we’re just going straight to the community. We’ve already been on the front lines to support and protect the community, asking residents how do we work together to be proactive? That’s really how we’re going to change the trajectory of our state and nation: getting together on the ground and doing the work project by project.

I see that change on the ground. We spend so much time arguing about right and wrong, with righteousness and political jargon. We waste so much time on that! And we don’t have time to waste.

Every one of our firefighters goes into the community, and they don’t ask about your political background; they show up and respond. That’s how we work. We roll up our sleeves to get to work and protect communities and build a more resilient future. And, that has to be done at the community scale – rural and urban.

Hilary Franz is the Commissioner of Public Lands, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Elected in 2016, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz protects and manages nearly six million acres of public lands in Washington State – from coastal waters and aquatic reserves, to working forests and farms, to commercial developments and recreation areas. Commissioner Franz is committed to ensuring our public lands are healthy and productive, both today and for future generations.

Photo Credit: Lake Chelan Now

June 2019


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