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Standing in front of the engines of a firefighting jet at Neptune Aviation in Missoula on Friday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester outlines legislation to be introduced to the Senate next week, that would allow FEMA funds to be used for rehabilitation of fire-hit communities and future fire prevention work.

County commissioners from throughout Montana came together to share ways of reviving their forest industry options during the annual Forest Products Week activities.

And the best way to do that involves collaborating with lots of people who formerly fought one another, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told the Montana Counties Forest Summit attendees in Missoula on Wednesday.

“The timber industry got a bad rap in the 1950s, but we’ve got a different industry now,” Tester, D-Mont., said. “They’re as concerned about clean water and wildlife habitat as anybody.”

The next couple of months in Congress may resolve many of those issues that are important to counties, Tester said, such as funding for Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes programs. Those allocations provide money for county services that used to come from the receipts from federal timber sales.

Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker asked the roughly 30 fellow commissioners in the room to share their stories about how important SRS and PILT funds are to local governments and communities. Without continued pressure from rural counties, she said, the money could be lost in Congressional budget shifting.

“It’s not welfare from the federal government,” Brooker said “The $1.6 million coming to Sanders County keeps the roads open to their (federal) property.”

National Association of Counties legislative director for public lands Chris Marklund said Montana counties share about $16 million a year from SRS. He advised the commissioners to get to know congressional staffs as well as the elected officials in pressing their case in Washington.

Another method was to keep support for the “Forests in Focus” legislative initiative that’s partnered Montana with the U.S. Forest Service on 15 projects in the state. Those projects affect about 200,000 acres and may produce about 50 million board-feet of timber for local mills, according to Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s local government forest adviser Matt Arno. As of January, six of those projects had signed contracts getting awarded.

That momentum needs to be maintained if Montana is to keep its mills and skilled workforce in the state, Arno said. And that requires county officials to stay involved in supporting those programs at both the state and federal level.

“We’re not getting the whole puzzle pulled together, and we have a time limit to get that done,” Arno said. “This is a place where local government can really help the federal government.”

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