“Measuring annual growth against annual mortality, some east-of-the-Cascades national forests in Washington may already be in a deficit, meaning they are dying faster than they are growing. The spread of insects and disease that we observe in aerial photography is devastating, especially at higher elevations. On a scale of one to 10 – one being the worst possible condition – I would assign a rating of two to Washington national forests east of the Cascades.”
Commissioner of Public Lands
Peter Goldmark is the outgoing Commissioner of Public Lands in Washington State. Goldmark, a Democrat from rural Okanogan County, has held the post since he narrowly defeated the Commissioner, Doug Sutherland in a hotly contested 2008 election. When announced his decision to not run for a third term last April, seven candidates tossed their hats in the August primary ring, a clear sign that the job is viewed as a politically important one in Washington.
As Commissioner, Goldmark has overseen the state’s venerable Department of Natural Resources [DNR], which is responsible for the management of 5.6 million acres of state-owned timberlands, aquatic and agricultural lands, including 2.9 million acres held in eight trusts that are vital revenue sources for state public schools, Washington State University, the University of Washington, capitol buildings, hospitals, libraries and law enforcement. The trusts generate an average $177 million a year for their beneficiaries.
Because some 13 million acres of state and private forestland in Washington are protected from wildfire by DNR – by far Washington’s largest fire department – Goldmark has kept a watchful eye on the rapidly declining condition of federally-owned national forests in central and eastern Washington. It has become an increasingly worrisome task. More than one million acres – some 1,600 square miles – burned east of the Cascades in 2015, the worst wildfire season in state history.
The largest, the 302,000 Okanogan Complex – a union of five neighboring fires – was the biggest such conflagration in the state’s history. Next in size was the 192,500-acre North Star Fire, which burned concurrently on the Colville National Forest and the Colville Indian Reservation. No. 3 in size was the 90,000 Chelan Complex By mid-August, crews were battling 13 major wildfires in the Evergreen State.
Goldmark 70, holds a PhD in molecular biology and is a conservationist and Okanogan Valley Rancher with a long history of public service at the local, county and state level. His 7,000-acre Double J Ranch earned him the Washington State Conservation Farmer of the Year award in 1983. He was born in Portland shortly before his parents moved to the Double J in 1946, and began his education in a one-room schoolhouse at Duley Lake, near Okanogan. He graduated from Haverford College near Philadelphia in 1967, then went on to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his PhD. Thereafter, he went on Harvard University on a postdoctoral fellowship in neurobiology, the study of the organization and function of cells in the nervous system.
Goldmark is also the founder and chief scientist of DJR Research, Inc. a biotech research laboratory that conducts genetic wheat seed research on the Double J. Ranch. In 1999, he co-founded Farming and the Environment, a non-profit that brings farmers and environmentalists together to ensure the ecological and environmental health of agricultural lands and rural communities.
In this interview, Commissioner Goldmark discusses his growing concerns for the rapidly deteriorating condition of national forests east of the Cascades in Washington, related economic and environmental impacts, and what might be done to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in Washington’s forests.
Evergreen: Commissioner Goldmark, your predecessor, Doug Sutherland, told us in a fall, 2004 interview, that being Commissioner of Public lands was a lot like drinking from a fully-charged fire hose. Have you found your eight years at the helm to be about the same?
Goldmark: No two days have been exactly the same, that’s for sure, and of course, this is a job that comes with a lot of moving parts and a great many responsibilities and challenges over which you have varying degrees of control, or no control at all, so Mr. Sutherland’s description is pretty accurate.
Evergreen: What has been the biggest challenge?
Goldmark: Without question, the forest health-wildfire crisis in central and eastern Washington. Although the lands in question are federally-owned, the impacts are falling directly on Washington landowners, homeowners and communities that are in harm’s way. It is an enormous worry and a very expensive tragedy for our entire state.
Evergreen: In your opinion, how bad is it east of the Cascades in your state?
Goldmark: It depends on how you measure it. The Forest Service estimates that in eastern Washington alone, there are 2.7 million national forest acres at high risk. That’s about one-third of the total forest landscape in that part of the state. We’ve identified 158 communities at risk, most within a stone’s throw of these forests.
Evergreen: We’ve been writing about this problem, and warning of its consequences, for 30 years. We think the federal response has been too little, too late. How do you see it?
Goldmark: As a scientist, I see forests that are overstocked – meaning they hold too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land – and overstressed because they are overstocked. But as commissioner, I see it on the anguished faces of people who have lost everything to wildfires capable of burning homes to the ground in a matter of minutes.
Evergreen: On August 27 of last year – easily one of the worst days in the worst wildfire season in Washington history, you testified at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing chaired by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell. How did you characterize the wildfire crisis?
Goldmark: I broke it down into its component parts: the fire borrowing mess, the need to ramp up forest thinning and restoration work to scales that are economically and environmentally meaningful, and the need for the federal government to significantly increase its investment in wildfire response infrastructure, including manpower and equipment.
Evergreen: Let’s follow that same breakdown. Tell us more about the fire borrowing mess.
Goldmark: On August 26, 2015 – the day before I testified before the Senate field hearing – the Forest Service began the transfer of $450 million to cover fire suppression costs that had already exceeded its fire budget. The money was transferred from programs that were set up to reduce the risk of wildfire before fires occur. In other words, the Forest Service is forced to cannibalize budgets that fund fire prevention, forest restoration, fuels reduction and preparedness. We are adding insult to injury.
Evergreen: No other federal agency that is responsible for mopping up natural disasters – and these big fires are unquestionably disasters in the same way floods, earthquakes and hurricanes are disasters – is penalized like this. We think this failure is systemic. Do you agree?
Goldmark: I do. The system cripples the Forest Service’s capacity for meeting its hazard reduction and forest restoration goals, to say nothing of the rising risk to rural communities east of the Cascades.
Evergreen: What are your thoughts on the need to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration work east of the Cascades.
Goldmark: I’m a big fan of the congressionally-blessed collaborative process because it brings quite diverse groups of national forest stakeholders together to help the Forest Service design and implement restoration projects that help reduce the risk of stand-replacing wildfires that are adversely impacting every corner of our lives – our watersheds, our lifestyles, rural communities and fish and wildlife habitat. But the pace and scale of our collaborative restoration work is still much to slow and the scale much too small to be environmentally or economically meaningful. We need to accelerate the pace of restoration.
Evergreen: Every collaborative group we’ve interviewed over the last two years has expressed the same concern. What’s the solution?
Goldmark: As with all problems association with federal land ownership, more funding for management, conservation and problem solving. Leaving this crisis to nature isn’t going to produce outcomes most Washingtonians will like or support.
Evergreen: We also think serial litigators who disrupt the work of Washington’s collaborative groups do the public and the public’s forests no favors.
Goldmark: I agree – in part because every forest collaborative in our state operates transparently, and welcomes all opinions and ideas that lead to resolution. You run a marathon, and you cross the finish line first, only to find that someone who didn’t run the race, says they came in first. Serial litigants poison the well, or at least the well-spring of public hopes, ideas and efforts to protect forests.
Evergreen: Speaking of hopes and ideas, don’t they differently greatly east and west of the Cascades?
Goldmark: Not so much as it relates to a deeply felt desire to protect our forests from harm. But there is much less interest in forestry’s economic assets in our metropolitan areas – Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Vancouver – than there is in rural communities both east and west of the Cascades.
Evergreen: But don’t you find it puzzling that metropolitan area publics that love nature and outdoor recreation aren’t more concerned about the forest health crisis in Washington’s national forests?
Goldmark: I think public perceptions in our metropolitan areas are changing, in part because conservation groups have become increasingly interested in what must be done to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in forests we all treasure.
Evergreen: How so?
Goldmark: Look at the work the Nature Conservancy is doing to help attract wood processing infrastructure to central Washington, and look at the efforts Conservation Northwest and Sustainable Northwest are mounting to help collaborative groups and change the very nature of the conservation conversation. These are sea changes that simply cannot be ignored.
Evergreen: We’re seeing the same thing in recent interviews with Dylan Kruse at Sustainable Northwest and Mitch Friedman at Conservation Northwest. You are quite right in saying that the very nature of the conservation conversation is changing in ways that reflect real concern for what is happening in our region’s national forests.
Goldmark: It has changed significantly in my eight years as Commissioner of Public Lands.
Evergreen: Speaking of wood processing infrastructure, every collaborator we’ve interviewed has emphasized the need to protect and increase our region’s wood processing capacity, which they see as key to providing robust and unsubsidized markets for wood fiber that must be removed from the overgrown forests you referenced a few minutes ago.
Goldmark: We have here both an economic problem and an environmental problem. On the economic side, many rural communities in central and eastern Washington have depended on wood processing jobs for decades. On the environmental side, a tremendous amount of forest thinning and stand tending work awaits us, but taxpayers can’t possibly afford the cost, which often exceeds $1,000 per acre. But with viable and sustainable markets for the biomass and the trees that need to be removed, a significant portion of the restoration cost can be recovered, but only if we have sufficient wood processing infrastructure, which we don’t currently have in central Washington.
Evergreen: You have given this problem a great deal of thought, haven’t you?
Goldmark: I have, and so has most of my staff. Last year, the State of Washington spent $190 million fighting wildfires. That’s more money than we distributed through our eight land trusts. The Forest Service projects that, in 10 years, two out of three dollars it gets from Congress will be spent on wildfires, leaving very little for preventive work in overstocked and overstressed forests.
Evergreen: And we recall that last year you also asked the legislature for $24 million for the biennium for forest health and fire hazard reduction programs.
Goldmark: That’s correct. I only got $6.75 million, but it was still the largest such investment the state has ever made. It speaks to the twin crises we face.
Evergreen: Twin crises?
Goldmark: The forest health-wildfire crisis and our lack of firefighting capacity. We don’t have sufficient equipment or trained personnel to deal with another 2015 wildfire season, yet everything that science tells us about these fires tells us more of them are coming. Our wildfire seasons are longer; climatic and weather conditions are more extreme; wildfire behavior is more explosive and unpredictable; and, clearly, the mega-fires we are witnessing are now the norm, not the exception.
Evergreen: Earlier in this interview you said that something like 158 communities in central and eastern Washington are in harm’s way because of their close proximity to national forests that you characterized as being overstocked and overstressed. Is there some way to further quantify this crisis, maybe on a scale of one to ten?
Goldmark: Measuring annual growth against annual mortality, some east-of-the-Cascades national forests in Washington may already be in a deficit, meaning they are dying faster than they are growing. The spread of insects and disease that we observe in aerial photography is devastating, especially at higher elevations. On a scale of one to 10 – one being the worst possible condition – I would assign a rating of two to Washington national forests east of the Cascades.
Evergreen: Not a pretty pictures
Goldmark: Not a pretty picture.