The U.S. Forest Service needs to quadruple forest restoration acres, while logging could reasonably triple over current levels in Montana, Chief Tom Tidwell said under questioning from Montana’s senators.

Tidwell was before the Senate Appropriations Interior Subcommittee on Wednesday lobbying for a nearly $5 billion budget in fiscal year 2016. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines questioned the chief on goals for Montana, pushing for increases in timber production to saw mills and other wood products.

“I don’t need to tell you how important saw mills are as a partner to the Forest Service. We don’t need to drive these folks out of business, and it becomes a taxpayer-funded problem as far as forest management,” Tester said.

Forest restoration, including logging, produced 113 million board feet (see info box) of saw logs, posts and poles and firewood on 9,000 acres in Montana during FY2014. Tester asked if current work was adequate to properly manage 17 million acres of forests.

“It’s not near enough of what we need to be doing to change the conditions on the landscape, to restore the resiliency of those forests and reduce the wildland fire threat to our communities,” Tidwell said, citing workforce reductions and shifting funds to fire budgets. “I’ve tried to be really clear about the challenge we have in front of us, and the need for us to increase the pace and scale of restoration of our nation’s forests.”

Tidwell went on to say that the number of restored acres needed to increase at least four times. He added that individual project size, with authorities granted under the 2014 Farm Bill, needed to significantly expand.

“Especially in your state, we need to be able to move forward with some larger landscape projects similar to what we’ve done in some neighboring states where we can look at not thousands but tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of acres with one environmental assessment,” Tidwell told Tester.

Daines echoed the frustrations of Montana timber mill owners, many running at two-thirds capacity. Many mills are facing layoffs due to lack of logs while surrounded by millions of acres of available timber, he said.

“They’re healthier forests; environmentally the best thing we can do are responsible timber practices,” he said.

Sustainable timber harvest figures are much higher than the 113 million board feet cut in Montana, Daines said. He then asked Tidwell if 300 million board feet was a reasonable goal.

“Three hundred million board feet is very reasonable,” Tidwell replied.

Tidwell emphasized to Daines that timber was typically only one component of a project’s larger goal, and that logging is often misperceived as “clear cuts from ridgetop to streamside.” If those who oppose or litigate against Forest Service projects understood the larger goals of forest health and resiliency, he believed there would be far less conflict.

Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, balked at Tidwell’s assertion that logging was misunderstood. The alliance has litigated against the Forest Service more than 50 times, including a current appeal on the Cabin Gulch project near Townsend.

“I think the Forest Service is really good at Orwellian speak – they want to call a timber sale restoration logging when it’s nothing more than a clear cut,” Garrity said. “The public isn’t stupid. When they’re clear-cutting the only thing they’re doing is getting wood out for the mills and they should just say that.”

The agency should also be transparent about lost expenses from timber sales equating to taxpayer subsidies for the timber industry, he said.

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The dip in timber for mills came with the downturn in housing demand of the Great Recession, said Garrity, an economist. The downturn was coupled with cheaper logs from Canada via NAFTA, he added.

Whether a 300 million board feet target was attainable would simply depend on where the logs came from and challenges were likely if it harmed fish and wildlife, Garrity said.

Timber-dependent industries in Montana spoke favorably of the potential for increased harvest.

“The exchange between the senators and chief is encouraging,” said Keith Olson, executive director of the Montana Logging Association. “The ability of industry to ramp up will be dependent upon certainty of access to increasing harvest levels.”

“The mills can handle it,” said Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association. “The mills are running at 60 percent capacity. All the mills would love an opportunity to run at 100 percent.”

Altemus cautioned that the Forest Service in the short term may not have enough current projects in the pipeline to meet a 300 million board feet goal as the cut is typically closer to 100 million board feet.

Public sentiment had largely turned to support for increasing timber harvest and other forest restoration, Daines said. Collaborative based forest projects have the greatest chance of success, and the number of diverse groups agreeing that responsible forest management would have positive economic and environmental impacts was encouraging, he added.

“The level of agreement we have is greater today than it’s ever been in my career,” Tidwell said of collaborative pushes for increased forest restoration.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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