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Officials in Washington want to spend more on thinning forests

TACOMA, Wash. - Some Washington officials want to spend more money on thinning forests in hopes of preventing another devastating fire season.

The state Department of Natural Resources is asking the Legislature to quintuple the amount spent on forest hazard reduction - to $20 million - in the next two years, The News Tribune reported.

"We think it's warranted in light of the fire season we just had," said state forester Aaron Everett.

About $17 million would go toward thinning forests, while the rest would be spent on replanting areas damaged by wildfires and working with communities to prevent fire damage.

In the past five years, the state has spent about $200 million fighting wildfires, but only about $31 million trying to keep Washington's forests healthy and less likely to burn.

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Last summer's wildfires burned more than 640 square miles throughout Washington. They included the biggest fire in state history: the Carlton Complex, which scorched 400 square miles and destroyed 300 homes in the Methow Valley.

Ann Stanton's home was not among those destroyed, and she credits a state grant program with saving it. A year earlier, Stanton and her husband worked with DNR to thin the trees on their 20-acre property.

Under the program, the state removes half of the small trees on a noncommercial landowner's property if the landowner takes care of the rest. DNR is seeking $7.5 million in the next two years to expand the program. With that money, the state estimates it could treat about 18 square miles throughout Washington, more than doubling the amount of noncommercial thinning performed annually on private lands.

"It made all the difference in the world for us," Stanton said. "The house was completely spared. If you could ignore the black trunks on some of the ponderosa pines, you could imagine the fire had never happened."

Stories like hers show that thinning works, but thinning trees on small private properties can be especially expensive, because often the woody debris produced has no commercial value to offset the cost of the work.

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Federal land is another trouble spot: According to state estimates, the U.S. Forest Service manages 43 percent of Washington's forests that need thinning or replanting. But the Forest Service has been overwhelmed with firefighting costs in recent years, forcing it to pull money from its tree-thinning and fire prevention programs.

Historically, small fires thinned trees naturally, but in the past century fire crews have extinguished many of those fires to protect nearby homes and businesses. That has left many forests overgrown and more susceptible to major fires, Everett said.

State officials estimate that about 30 percent of forests in Eastern Washington - more than 4,200 square miles - need work, such as thinning or the planting of fire- and insect-resistant trees. Government agencies, private landowners and timber companies only complete treatments on about 220 square miles per year, Everett said.

Densely packed trees also compete for light, water and nutrients, making them more susceptible to bugs and fire damage alike.

That's where thinning and controlled burning come in, practices that can save money in the long run.

In addition to expanding the grant program, Washington's DNR is seeking $2 million to pay for crews of military veterans to thin trees and clear brush around 1,500 homes, and $5 million to thin about 29,500 acres of state-managed forests, which would include work to prevent insect infections that kill trees and upset forest ecosystems.

The budget request is "ambitious and aggressive," Everett acknowledged. Two years ago, DNR made a similar $20 million request. It only got $4 million for thinning forests throughout the state.

But some lawmakers think there will be more support this year after last year's fire season.

"The forest health stuff is a no-brainer for me," said state Rep. Brian Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. "The fires are only going to get worse if we don't do that."

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