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Greg Gianforte

Rep. Greg Gianforte spoke at Tuesday's Montana Counties Forest Summit on legislation he hopes will speed up timber harvest and Forest Service permitting, reduce court challenges to agency decisions and change the way wildfires get paid for.

As a group of land managers debated ways to find jobs in Montana’s public forests, Rep. Greg Gianforte assured them Congress was working on the problem too.

“The fundamental solution is we’ve got to get back and manage our forests again,” Gianforte, R-Montana, told the Montana Counties Forest Summit attendees on Tuesday. “Until we do, these severe fire are going to continue. We know the benefits when we manage our forests. There’s healthier forests, more habitat, more wildlife, we have jobs and the fires are less severe.”

Gianforte touted the elements of the Resilient Federal Forest Act he cosponsored in the House of Representatives. The proposal would speed up permitting of salvage logging and diseased tree removal, block judicial review of some forest activity, reward projects with collaborative group participation and create a pilot program using arbitration instead of court challenges to settle objections to forest activity.

The bill passed the House last November, but has been stuck in the Senate, Gianforte said.

“We’re taking pieces and sticking them in other must-pass bills,” Gianforte said. Several of those got included in the Omnibus budget bill passed in March, including expanded categorical exclusions for hazardous fuels treatments. Among the others: overturning of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court’s “Cottonwood” decision that required high-level Forest Service consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on endangered species critical habitat decisions, and ending the problem of “fire-borrowing” where the Forest Service has to raid its budget for routine forest management to pay for wildfire expenses.

However, that fire-borrowing solution doesn’t take effect until 2020. Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier questioned how the agency would handle the interval.

“That leaves us with two fire seasons with the same funding problems,” Strohmaier said. “We’re still behind the curve on everything else in forest management.”

The 2017 fire season consumed about 55 percent of the Forest Service’s fiscal-year budget. The 2018 federal budget gave the agency an additional $500 million to cover fire costs, according to a Forest Service analysis. In 2020, the new provision will cap fire spending at $1.011 billion a year, with additional costs covered by federal disaster funding accounts.

Tuesday’s conference brought together Montana county commissioners, state and federal land managers, and nonprofit organizations to discuss how the state’s economy can benefit from public forests. Organizer Matt Arno of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the second annual gathering was looking for ways to support communities that could no longer depend on past industrial models.

“We’re not going to go back to cutting old-growth timber,” Arno said. “But we’re still cutting trees for hazardous fuels and wildlife habitat and forest health and 2x4s. Those will never have the same value as the old growth. We need to figure out how to capture as many jobs as possible doing that work.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.