The forest of Mount Constitution. (Mandi Johnson/staff photo)

San Juan County a priority in state’s forest plan

The San Juan Islands are heavily and densely forested. Because of this, the state Department of Natural Resources has identified the islands as one of 16 locations in Western Washington to focus on in its 2020 Forest Action Plan.

“These priority landscapes, spanning nearly 2 million acres, are where state and federal resources will be deployed first to increase forest resilience,” DNR staff stated in a press release.

In collaboration with numerous conservation, government, tribal and industry partners, the DNR’s plan intertwines new goals with existing management strategies, such as wildfire and climate change strategic plans, salmon recovery and forest health. View the plan at https://dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_2020_forest_action_plan.pdf.

“We depend on our forests in Washington state for our quality of air, our quality of water and our quality of life. That’s why we’re called the Evergreen State,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a video about the plan. “We take our forests seriously. We take protecting and conserving our trees and our working forest lands as part of our significant responsibility.”

More than 20 million acres of Washington state is forested, according to Franz. DNR released its Forest Action Plan on Oct. 26, in which it outlines more than 100 priority actions to “improve and conserve forests across Washington.” Such goals include supporting fish and wildlife; enhancing rural economies; enhancing wildfire response; encouraging outdoor recreation; and maintaining clean air and water.

“At DNR, we work every day to ensure that our state’s lands, waterways and communities thrive, and supporting our forests is key to that mission,” Franz said in a DNR press release. “From climate change and catastrophic wildfires, to invasive species, to increasing development, our forests face unprecedented threats that require bold action. The Forest Action Plan is a critical tool to unify around a common vision and getting to work saving forests across our state.”

Every state in the country was tasked by Congress to develop a forest action plan in 2008 as part of the Farm Bill. The states had until 2010 to write the plan and it must be updated every decade.

“This next iteration of the Forest Action Plan is at once bold, inclusive, and usable,” Washington Association of Land Trusts Executive Director Nick Norton said in the DNR press release. “Addressing the multiple risks that forests face in Washington requires an ‘all lands, all hands’ approach, and this document is the living embodiment of that ethos. As a group of 32 nonprofit land conservation organizations, we see ourselves and the diverse needs of our communities strongly represented in the Forest Action Plan, and are excited about the clear opportunities for collaboration to help make this vision a reality.”

According to the DNR, State Forest Action Plans are a “practical and comprehensive vision” for federal, state, local and private resources to invest where they can be most effective. The purpose is to “conserve and manage working forest landscapes; protect forests from threats; and enhance public benefits from trees and forests,” a DNR press release said.

An action plan revision qualifies the state to receive federal funding to enact its plans, according to the DNR. More than $50 million has been received by the DNC over the past decade for urban forestry; technical assistance for family forestland owners; community wildfire preparedness and more.

“This plan will serve as a roadmap for targeting collective investments in forest health and will drive prioritization of work for our agencies across our shared landscape,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa said in the DNR press release. “Through Shared Stewardship, our agencies will be better able to leverage resources, engage with stakeholders and include them in decision-making, and to accomplish the work on the ground that’s needed to promote and protect the health of forests and communities.”

The strategies outlined in Washington’s 2020 Forest Action plan include preparing western Washington for wildfire; safeguarding against drought; protecting critical fish and wildlife habitat; reducing wildfire fuels in eastern Washington forests; supporting rural jobs; increasing controlled restoration burning; connecting fish and wildlife habitat; saving forests from development; promoting urban forests in an equitable way; and getting to work quickly.

“Keeping Washington’s forests healthy, productive and growing provide benefits to us all — trees that sequester carbon, forests that provide fish and wildlife habitat, and local jobs to manufacture renewable wood products,” Washington Forest Protection Association Executive Director Mark Doumit said in the DNR press release. “Forest landowners manage healthy working forests that support more than 101,000 jobs across the state and produce carbon-friendly wood products used to construct homes and other buildings in our communities.”

Wildfires are an inconvenience that those living along the West Coast have grown more accustomed to as the years progress. An unfortunate and unnecessary side effect of more than 100 years of forest mismanagement, according to experts.

“We need to do something about it,” San Juan County Conservation District Executive Director Mike Ramsey said at an August 2019 meeting. “We have a higher risk for fire here than most of us realize.”

A key factor in the rise of wildfires, besides humans, is climate change. The San Juan Islands are subject to warmer, drier weather, more so than surrounding areas, according to a University of Washington climate impact study from 2018.

Forester and ecologist Carson Sprenger, director of Orcas Island-based Rain Shadow Consulting, explained at the meeting that forests in the islands are defined by high geophysical variability; low production soils; and human impacts.

Historically, Sprenger said, most island locations would experience a low-intensity fire every 7-15 years. Many of these fires were purposefully started by Native Americans in the region, a practice that ceased to occur 100-150 years ago.

Logging took many of the larger trees that were more resistant to fires, Sprenger continued. The removal of the larger trees and the proliferation of smaller trees has left the remaining clusters of trees densely populated. These tree stands experience overcrowding, an increase in dead debris and drought stressors causing a perfect storm for forest fires.

“Actively managing forests is how we ensure healthy outdoor places will be able to support wildlife habitat and local communities for generations to come,” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in the DNR press release. “The Forest Action Plan will guide forest management work and ongoing collaboration with local partners and state and federal agencies. We’re looking forward to this work, and its benefits for fish, wildlife, and people.”