As climate change and continued development threaten natural resources throughout the state, it will be increasingly important for public lands managers and private property owners to collaborate on how to keep forests healthy.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which manages millions of acres of forestland and helps protect and preserve millions more, recently released its 2020 Forest Action Plan that sets the stage for that collaboration to continue. The document highlights the Skagit River watershed as an important area on which to focus.

“It’s pretty clear that if we’re going to accomplish some of the big goals we have for forest health and salmon and orca recovery and wildfire resiliency, we have to work across ownership boundaries,” lead plan author Andrew Spaeth said. “No single forest owner in the state is going to be able to (tackle that work alone).”

The five-year, state-level plan focuses on what Natural Resources calls “all hands, all lands work,” and makes the state agency eligible for a variety of federal funding programs.

Since the first plan was published in 2010, about $50 million in federal funds have gone to in-state projects, according to Natural Resources.

The latest edition of the plan was written with input from federal and state land and wildlife management agencies, as well as scientists at the University of Washington and the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy.

Together they analyzed existing data about habitat, water quality, wildlife, climate projections and other factors to determine where forestlands are at risk.

“The Skagit came out as a high priority watershed because it is likely, especially in the upper watershed, to be heavily affected by climate change, changes in weather and precipitation and temperature,” said Spaeth, an environmental planner in the agency’s Forest Health and Resiliency Division. “The Skagit basin is likely to be affected by drought into the future, and that’s especially important because a lot of our forests do not have drought tolerant species.”

That could mean trees dying from a lack of water, disease and an increase in insect infestation. A loss of trees could impact water quality, wildlife habitat and revenue for small forest landowners.

“We know that the Skagit basin is incredibly important for fish and wildlife, and based on the analysis we conducted there are quite a few small private family forest owners that could benefit through the programs we administer ... and have access to federal funds for,” Spaeth said.

Now that the Skagit watershed has been identified as a priority for this work, specific projects will be considered in the area.

“Now the hard work is really in front of us to identify projects and opportunities to help protect those forests and resources with sustainable management in the watershed,” Spaeth said. “We hope to coordinate and support the work of different landowners who are interested in advancing forest management and forest health activities.”

The Forest Action Plan also helps link priorities in other Natural Resources plans, including the agency’s 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, the 10-year Wildland Fire Protection Plan, and the first Plan for Climate Resilience that was published in February.

The plan was endorsed by the Washington Forest Protection Association and the Washington Association of Land Trusts for its emphasis on all forest services, from wildlife habitat to timber related jobs.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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