As a 28-square-mile wildfire continues to burn in Colorado, consuming nearly 350 homes over the weekend, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark isn't standing idly by. "We're fortunate here that we don't have the same drought conditions as Colorado," Goldmark explained by phone today, "but we're grown up enough to know that drought will eventually come here as well." In preparation for that eventuality Goldmark today issued a “forest health hazard warning” for eastern Okanogan and western Ferry counties, with plans to expand to parts of Klickitat and Yakima counties.

Utilizing $4.3 million appropriated by the state legislature under the recent jobs bill, the Department of Natural Resources will initiate efforts to thin dead and dying trees in stands on state, federal, and private lands that are under the heaviest pressure from a spruce budworm infestation. Forest restoration work will begin soon on some the worst affected stands, focusing on those closest to communities. The goal is to restore the health of the forests and to reduce the fuel available to feed a fire like that currently raging in Colorado.

Goldmark says the the thinning project will create "hundreds of jobs" over the next two seasons, but will only restore about five percent of the 200,000 acres in Washington state that are currently under pressure from spruce budworm, pine bark beetles, and other environmental threats. He's appreciative of the resources legislators have given him—"it couldn't be more timely," Goldmark says—but estimates it would cost "tens of millions" of dollars a year to fully address the problem.

As for environmental concerns over such forest management practices, which have proven controversial in the past, Goldmark insists that only dead and dying trees will be cut and removed. "The Bush administration created a bad taste in everybody's mouth by going in and taking out big trees as well," says Goldmark, "but as long as they're healthy and survivable, where not gonna touch 'em."