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The sun sets on a grove of pine and fir trees above Whitefish. After a century of intensive harvest on both public and private land, Montana's timber industry now struggles to find enough trees to remain viable. Changes in lumber markets, forest health, wildfire behavior and politics all affect how much wood we want to take from the forest.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

The U.S. Forest Service’s proposed 2018 budget presents its public and private observers with lots of rebuilding work to do.

On Wednesday, Montana’s Democratic and Republican senators both challenged Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to replace or re-energize programs slashed in President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget plan. And more locally, Forest Service partners have started bracing for dramatic losses of funding.

“This budget is a wreck,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana told Tidwell during a hearing before the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, pressed Tidwell for stronger efforts to get national forest timber into local sawmills and maintain trails and roads.

Trump’s budget proposes $4.7 billion for the Forest Service in fiscal 2018. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted the request was $880 million less than 2017, not counting a $342 million omission of supplemental wildfire funding Congress had added last year.

“Congress has never looked too close at a president’s proposed budget since Reagan,” said Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association. “The Secretary of Agriculture (which oversees the Forest Service) doesn’t even have his staff in place yet. The budget is going to be obviously less, and the Forest Service is going to have to figure out how to do more with less. We’re going to have a culture shift.”

A lot of cultures in Montana could feel direct effects of those proposals. The president’s budget calls for elimination of the $40 million Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), which has delivered several million dollars’ worth of work to the Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative in Montana. That got noticed by Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co. in Seeley Lake, which is a major player in that collaborative.

“A lot of industry folks will be weighing in to help balance that out,” Sanders said. “The CFLRP has accomplished a lot of great work for wildlife habitat, fisheries, legacy roads and some vegetation management and fuels reduction projects. It also expires in three years. Whether it would be extended down the road is very hard to tell.”

It might also hit the Montana’s scientific communities hard.

“In Missoula, you’re looking at significant cuts in Forest Service research spending,” said Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “That includes the Joint Fire Science Research budget that gets zeroed out. The one place that’s not cut is inventory and monitoring — counting trees. We will just stop studying them.”

State and Private Forestry spending takes a 50 percent cut, and loses 21 percent of its personnel. The Forest Service’s Landscape Scale Restoration program gets eliminated, saving $14 million. Likewise the the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program ($2 million), and Urban and Community Forestry ($28 million).

“We run a number of financial, educational and technical assistance programs that make grants to landowners for hazardous fuels reduction and forest restoration on private land,” said Angela Wells, stewardship program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “All of that funding is passed down through the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry and Landscape-Scale Restoration programs. Montana has received about $3 million since 2008, when those programs started.”

Wells said those dollars have had a big impact in eastern Montana, where they’ve helped small towns maintain or protect trees on public parks and streets. 

“It may be just $500 or $5,000, but they leverage small amounts to make dramatic improvements,” Wells said. “East of the divide, there’s a lot of green ash trees that are vulnerable to emerald ash borer. That money paid for inventories that establish how old their forests are and what succession plans they have in place. It helps for figuring out where to reduce hazard trees or plant new trees.”

In Montana, the Forest Service’s $62 million Forest Legacy Program pays for conservation easements and purchases of former corporate timberlands that might be taken out of the timber base for urban development. Wells said examples include the recent easements on Trumbull Creek and Haskill Basin near Whitefish, which kept nearby forests available for both recreation and logging. The 2018 proposal eliminates that program.

Capital improvement and maintenance takes a 73 percent cut, from $363 million to $99 million. Deferred maintenance and infrastructure improvement and legacy roads and trails work would be completely turned off, for a savings of $43 million. The facilities program would drop 84 percent, from $59 million to $11.7 million. That’s the budget line that administers and maintains recreational and administrative facilities like ranger stations.

Trails work would drop 84 percent from $64.6 million to $12.7 million “to maintain a staff level to address public safety needs” according to the Forest Service budget document. Despite the funding reduction, the agency’s performance target 2018 is the same as 2017: 55,000 miles of trail maintained and 1,300 miles improved.

Roads work would drop 56 percent from $171.7 million to $75 million, despite the agency’s own analysis that it has a nearly $3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance on its 370,000-mile road network.

In his comments to Tidwell, Tester warned those cuts hinted at a larger policy threat.

“There is a move in this country to sell our public lands, to privatize public lands,” Tester told Tidwell. “As we don’t have access to trails, as roads aren’t being done, as trees aren’t being managed, it gives more ammunition to those shortsighted people who want to do away with our public land — who want to sell it. Keep that in mind.”

No new money is allocated for land acquisitions in 2018. The program has been reduced from $63.4 million to $7 million, mainly to maintain staff to complete deals already underway. That includes the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

While many in the conservation community have decried the near-elimination of the Land and Water Conservation Fund from $450 million to $64 million, Montana Wildlife Federation Director Dave Chadwick saw a more subtle move coming. The fund has enjoyed strong bipartisan support over its 40-year existence. But recently some senators have proposed redirecting its dollars from land acquisition to maintenance and management of existing lands.

“Everyone on the Hill said the president’s budget was dead on arrival,” Chadwick said. “But the thing that jumped out at me as troubling is this legislative language to change the LWCF. That’s a strong signal of a policy proposal the administration intends to pursue.”

Forest products, including timber and firewood, would see no change from the previous $359 million allocation in 2017. However, it assumes an increase in the volume of timber sold from 2.9 billion board-feet to 3.2 billion board-feet. The budget document said it will continue stewardship contracting, but doesn’t specify an amount.

“We can’t get logs to the mills — it's a sad, sad state of affairs and it is because of these extreme environmental groups who are litigating many of our sales that we have right now in Montana,” Daines told Tidwell. “We aren’t taking care of the forest — then we see them burn. We can reduce the wildfire risk, as we know, by actively managing our forests.”

Daines used the session to press for a bill he and Tester have introduced to overturn a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision requiring extensive inter-agency cooperation on Endangered Species Act decisions.

“It would be one thing if we just needed to re-initiate consultation — we’d be glad to be able to do that,” Daines reported Tidwell saying. “Our folks are working through that now, but the way this court decision came down - is it creates a continuous procedural loop and so they were never done.”

Daines also asked for more support for the Secure Rural Schools program as a way of getting more federal revenue to county governments that aren’t receiving timber receipts. Trump’s budget does not mention Secure Rural Schools, Daines noted.

“I've been up here every year talking about the need to increase the pace and scale of restoration to be able to maintain and restore our nation's forests, so there's no question we need to do that part,” Tidwell replied. “I want to work with you to find ways to also provide some certainty, you know, for counties.”

Zeroing out budget lines isn’t the only worry. At DNRC, Wells said partial cuts can neuter a program.

“An 8 (percent) or 11 percent reduction means the difference between that program continuing or being eliminated,” Wells said. “You can’t afford to have the program if you whittle it down below a certain threshold. I’m not convinced the people who voted for this administration knew these things were going to happen,” Wells said. “These are important to people across the political spectrum.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.