Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Columbian and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
Although smoke has cleared throughout Clark County, wildfires continue to burn in many regions of Washington. Fire seasons are growing longer and more intense, and the impact has been felt in urban areas the past two summers with choking air and hazy views.
The question is whether this represents a new normal for populated areas throughout the state. The corollary to that question is how much attention the Legislature and Congress should pay to the issue. In Clark County, nearly 100,000 acres are publicly owned, including about 58,000 protected by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Since 2015, lawmakers have provided the DNR and the Department of Fish and Wildlife — the state’s primary wildfire-fighting agencies — with operating budgets totaling $18 million. This falls far short of the agencies’ request of $40 million, according to The Seattle Times, but still represents a sharp increase from previous years.
In addition, the agencies were granted $18 million in the supplemental budget for 2017-19 to implement a 20-year plan to thin the state’s forests. “The Legislature is recognizing that it needs to be more proactive and ramp up funding to address forest health,” state Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, told the Times. Hawkins also emphasized the need for “harvesting and thinning forests in a responsible way.”
Responsible management received a boost earlier this year, when Congress ended the long-standing practice of “fire borrowing.” That process saw the U.S. Forest Service using money for forest management to fight wildfires. The result was less money for thinning forests and reducing the amount of fuel for fires, which led to larger fires the following year and created a cycle that exacerbated the situation.
As part of a bill approved in March, the Forest Service will receive $2 billion a year for fighting wildfires. That leaves funds designed for fire prevention to be used for their intended purpose.
At the state level, however, questions remain. Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands from 2009-17, said money allotted by the Legislature “doesn’t really scratch the surface. It’s only going to get worse.”
Forest management has been one factor leading to more intense fires. But it would be folly to ignore the impact of climate change. Jonathan Thompson, an ecologist at Harvard University, explained to The Associated Press that the time between wildfires in some locations is growing shorter, and with less moisture in those areas, certain forests will never regenerate. The result will be regions converting to shrub land. “They get stuck in this trap of repeated, high-severity fire,” he said. “Through time, we’ll see the California shrub land shifting north.”
The quality-of-life costs of wildfires are evident to residents who lived through the eye-irritating and throat-scratching smoke of recent weeks — or the residue from the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. So, too, are the economic costs of fire prevention and suppression. But the long-term collateral costs might be more difficult to enumerate. Pictures of smoke-shrouded cities influence how would-be tourists view the region, and the area’s robust outdoors industry has suffered through back-to-back hazy summers that often keep residents indoors.
Improved forest management and increased funding for fire suppression will not halt the blazes; those are an immutable fact of nature. But the new normal calls for increased action to protect the environment, economy and the health of residents throughout Washington.
Task force on open records must do what’s best for public
State law requires elected officials to fully comply with the Open Records Act. The exception has been the folks who write the state’s laws: senators and representatives.
This is wrong. If the records of city council members, county commissioners and school board members are open to the public, the records of state lawmakers should be too.
Yet, despite years of trying to resolve this incongruity, the Legislature continues to want to exempt its members from some aspects of the Open Records Act.
A lawsuit was filed by news organizations to force lawmakers to release records. A Thurston County judge sided with The Associated Press and other entities by ruling that individual lawmakers and their offices are subject to the public records law. But rather than appeal to the state Supreme Court, a task force was formed in the hope of finding a way to address lawmakers’ concerns about making records public.
Last week, the task force held its first meeting, which proved to be a positive step in the proper direction.
“I’m here to negotiate. I hope we can come up with an agreement,” said state Sen. Kevin Van de Wege, D-Sequim. The public wants more disclosure, he added, and “that is the direction we should move toward.”
The 15-member panel comprises eight lawmakers — divided evenly between Republican and Democrats — three media representatives, three members of the public and an open government advocate.
Given the diversity of backgrounds of the panel, it’s unlikely getting a consensus will be swift or easy. Nevertheless, if the group can get a clear vision of where it wants to go, the process should be productive.
And this is what members attempted to do at the meeting last week.
Ultimately, we agree with the approach pitched by task force member Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He said the panel should try to figure out how to ensure lawmakers abide by the Public Records Act as do leaders of cities, counties and state agencies. This is about doing what’s best for the public, not the elected lawmakers.
Over the course of the task force’s meetings, let’s hope the group comes to an understanding that transparency in government — at all levels — is essential.