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'Keep Washington Evergreen' initiative focuses on health and future of local forests

The initiative to "Keep Washington Evergreen" will head to the state capitol next legislative session.

SEATTLE — Two key pillars of the new "Keep Washington Evergreen" initiative are restoring Washington forests devastated by wildfire and preserving key forest lands from development. 

Keep Washington Evergreen is also a large piece of legislation heading to the state capitol in the next session, and is being spearheaded by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.  

“Government should have a plan. They should have a clear understanding of the problem,” said Franz. “How that problem is affecting every Washington resident, our economy, our communities, our environment. What are the solutions that are going to address that problem?”

This plan follows Washington’s 20-year bipartisan-supported forest health plan passed in 2018, which not only provides millions in new equipment and firefighters to deal with the growing threat from wildfire, but also finances controlled burning and thinning of forests to make them more likely to survive a fire. 

RELATED: State launches 20-year plan to reduce wildfires

The Evergreen initiative would reforest one million acres of working forests, not only to meet environmental goals but to provide the wood that mills and jobs in rural communities depend on. It also aims to help shield another million acres from development by spending $25 million to equalize the value of land now tended to by private landowners.  

“The development right is worth a lot more than the timber,” said Elaine Oneil, Executive Director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, which represents small, and mostly family-owned, timber landowners, a growing number of whom are finding themselves facing the choice of continuing to raise trees, or sell development rights for stores, homes, factories and warehouses.  

“One of the challenges you have in keeping forests as forests, is you run into what are the public benefits of that -- and there are many -- and what about your private property rights,” said Oneil.

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According to the Washington Department of Natural Resources, headed by Franz, 400,000 acres of forestland were converted to development between 2007 and 2019. She said the state is on track to lose an additional 625,000 acres by 2040. 

“We’re asking for $25 million from the legislature for a rapid response fund,  which will go directly to purchasing conservation easements on working forests that are at highest threat from conversion,” said Franz.

Additional parts of the plan will attempt to add trees to the urban landscape, which have become heat islands this past summer when temperatures on the west side of the state broke records into the 100s. The need for more trees in cities will not only help cool but also provide for cleaner air, reduce asthma and trap carbon. 

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