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Sen. Jon Tester talks with fire officials at the Lolo Peak fire incident command post in August. The Montana Democrat is calling on Forest Service officials to lift travel restrictions preventing Rocky Mountain Research Station fire experts from attending fire science conferences. 

Sen. Jon Tester has asked the U.S. Forest Service to remove limitations on which fire-science experts can travel to an international conference after reports last week that many Missoula-based personnel weren’t allowed to attend.

The Forest Service is sending fewer than a third of the fire experts it sent two years ago to the same conference. Organizers of the International Fire Ecology and Management Congress told the Missoulian they were expecting 44 people from the Rocky Mountain Research Station this year, but were only getting six.

In a letter to Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke sent on Monday, Tester said it was “in the best interest of Montanans that these public servants are permitted to share their knowledge with other wildfire experts from across the country and around the world.”

“It is imperative that you permit these folks to share their work with the public and the larger wildfire community,” Tester wrote. “Our best land management practices are science-based and collaborative. Failing to share new research hamstrings both of these goals. I respectfully ask that you permit USFS scientists to present their research results at the upcoming International Fire Ecology and Management Congress and other relevant fire or forest management conferences.”

Conference organizers and participants said it initially appeared that scientists working on climate-change topics were the first to be eliminated from attendance. They also raised concerns that an old federal policy called the Meeting Management System was arbitrarily preventing people from attending due to budget constraints, even though that policy was loosened in mid-2017.

Last Wednesday, Missoula Fire Science lab officials said there was no topic-based restriction on who could attend the international conference. Instead, they were limited by a six-slot allowance for travel, with 20 applicants for the opportunity.

Fire, Fuel, and Smoke Science Program Manager Colin Hardy said he chose people based on whose work best fit the conference goals, whose career would best be improved by attending and what level of participation a particular person would perform at the conference (such as leading a panel discussion).

Hardy said he never got to budget limitations because of the small number of people he was allowed to send. That number was set at the Secretary of Agriculture level, which oversees the Forest Service.

The scientists no longer attending include Matt Jolly, who was to present new work on “Climate-induced variations in global severe weather fire conditions,” Karin Riley on “Fuel treatment effects at the landscape level: burn probabilities, flame lengths and fire suppression costs,” Mike Battaglia on “Adaptive silviculture for climate change: Preparing dry mixed conifer forests for a more frequent fire regime,” and Dave Calkin, who was working on ways to manage the human response to wildfire.

Each also had planned to bring members of their research teams, according to preliminary workshop schedules put together by organizers at the Association for Fire Ecology.

Tester’s office noted that fighting wildfire in Montana cost more than $389 million in 2017. About 1.2 million acres burned, while the nation recorded almost 9 million acres.

“Now is the time for us to invest in better understanding wildfire and forest management, not silencing Montana voices who have seen wildfire firsthand,” Tester wrote.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.