A Missoula forestry watchdog has accused Gov. Steve Bullock of cutting the public out of the process when nominating roughly 5 million timbered acres for priority attention, while those involved in the governor’s decision say the critic is off-base.
“Why couldn’t he have sent out a notice saying hey, we’re nominating millions of acres for fast-track logging – does anyone have an interest in providing input?” asked Matthew Koehler of the WildWest Institute in Missoula. “Thousands and thousands of Montanans would have had an interest in this. But it’s part of a trend we’re seeing on public lands management, where things done under the buzzword ‘collaboration’ oftentimes are nothing more than self-selected groups of people getting together and making decisions. We feel that’s what happened here.”
On April 7, Bullock announced his recommendations under the newly passed federal Farm Bill for acreage where he wants the U.S. Forest Service to focus management action. He was one of 34 governors to do so under the bill’s 60-day submission period.
Bullock picked forestland in eight national forests: the Lolo, Bitterroot, Flathead, Helena, Lewis and Clark, Kootenai, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Custer-Gallatin.
The bill asked for nominated lands that are infected or threatened by insect outbreaks, have high fire danger or nearness to developed areas. The acres could not be in federal wilderness or wilderness study areas. In addition to logging, priority needs could also be habitat restoration, road repair or removal, fisheries improvements and recreation facilities.
Koehler said the governor issued no public notice and kept no records of the conference calls he had with seven people who had input on the choices. They included Montana Trout Unlimited’s Bruce Farling and the Blackfoot Challenge’s Gary Burnett in the Missoula area, Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker, Montana Wood Products Association Executive Vice President Julia Altemus and Montana Logging Association Director Keith Olson in Helena and Barb Cestro of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman.
“The governor wanted a well-rounded group of people to provide advice to him, and when the governor asks for my advice, I’m going to give it to him,” Farling said. “My advice was don’t include roadless areas, don’t go outside what forest plans say, don’t include recommended wilderness, and only recommend areas with recognized collaborative groups who’ve made recommendations. I never recommended a single specific landscape.”
Pyramid Mountain Lumber resource manager Gordy Sanders was not part of the phone calls, but said the resulting maps matched Forest Service analysis of forest conditions.
“The choices were based on hard data,” Sanders said. “They (the Forest Service) have specialists that fly over Montana every August and note on maps where they have beetle activity. This looks like the current flight map from last year plus the wildland-urban interface.”
Altemus agreed that the acreage recommendations came mainly from Forest Service reports.
“I think the governor decided it was better to have a small group looking at landscapes, where infrastructure is, where there’s a chance of getting work done and getting things to market,” Altemus said. “Personally, I think the governor did a really good job reaching out to a broad group of folks. This is not normally something he’d have a lot of information about. I find it fascinating that we’re wrapped around the axle by some people who don’t like to collaborate and have conversations. They want to cause trouble.”
University of Montana political scientist Rob Saldin said Bullock didn’t do anything illegal or improper with his decision. But he added it did get the same kind of public reaction as his nomination of his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to fill the Senate seat vacated by Max Baucus.
“On both the Walsh and Forest Service announcements, these are decisions that are totally within his area to make,” Saldin said. “He doesn’t have to answer to anybody on those. From a PR (public relations) perspective, you could ask if this a wise way to go about things. But I think the calls for more transparency are made by people who don’t like what he announced. If he’d made a different announcement, they wouldn’t have said anything.”
The Forest Service manages about 22 million acres of public land in Montana. Of that, about 12.4 million acres are part of the “suitable timber base” that’s not in wilderness, inventoried roadless or other protected categories. Virtually all of Bullock’s recommended 5 million priority acres are in that suitable timber base category, according to Altemus.
Bullock spokesman Dave Parker said because of the way the Farm Bill was released, governors actually had about 30 days to make their recommendations, not 60.
“And designating doesn’t mean all acres are going to be affected,” Parker said. “We’re just saying these areas have some need to address some problems. That includes improving fisheries, reclaiming roads, fire mitigation – those types of things. And the actual project-by-project decisions that would address those issues will be open for vigorous public process.”
However, the Farm Bill gives forest managers a greatly simplified process to approve timber projects of up to 3,000 acres that exclude NEPA reviews and administrative objections. The Colt-Summit stewardship project north of Seeley Lake has spent years in court over a 2,038-acre project portion.
Parker said the details of future public review of forest work were still being worked out.
Koehler argued Bullock had a duty to follow the Montana Constitution’s requirement that the public has the right to participate and know about the actions of public officials.
“Here we had a handpicked group of seven people that met five times, they nominated 5 million acres of national forest for fast-track logging, where the NEPA process is streamlined or weakened and public participation is curtailed,” Koehler said. “And when we asked to receive notes, basic information, were notes taken, where can we find them? – we were told we’d have to pay to get that information.”
Saldin countered that there can also be overblown requests for information designed to keep officials from doing their jobs.
“You can get killed with efforts to be transparent and provide public input,” Saldin said. “You can get bogged down in that kind of stuff. It’s a good way to get nothing accomplished.”