The wind from Washington, D.C., blows through Montana’s forests, and it smells like money.
More than $7 billion in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provisions will fertilize every aspect of Rocky Mountain trees, from seedling nurseries to wood product marketing. In between, look for better-paid wildland firefighters, more fire science, conservation of old timberlands, and a lot more logging, fuels removal and road construction.
“How this is going to be spent hasn’t been figured out yet, but this feels like a big win,” said Wes Swaffar, director of forest restoration for the national organization American Forests. “With expanding funding levels like this, it’s important to think about how that money hits and get a pipeline of projects developed. In a week or so, we should have more details on what that looks like.”
One thing Swaffar was particularly excited about was the unleashing of the Reforestation Trust Fund, which pays for nurturing and planting new trees on national forests. Until now, the fund could only spend $30 million a year. The infrastructure bill allows it to spend $266 million a year on a backlog of almost 4 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands.
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“This is everything from getting seedlings in production to putting cone-collection crews out there,” Swaffar said. “That $30 million cap prevented much increase in activities, even though there’s significant need from fires and insect infestation and disease. This will create economic opportunities in rural communities. We don’t know who will be doing that labor, but it expands Forest Service capacity.”
That has some critics of the Forest Service concerned. Mike Bader, an independent analyst and frequent opponent of logging projects in western Montana, said he saw both good and bad initiatives.
“It’s good they’ve got money there for road reclamation and restoration, because they’ve got a huge backlog,” said Bader, whose work on documenting unmaintained roads in the Ninemile area west of Missoula recently resulted in a court-ordered halt of the Soldier-Butler project there. “That’s one positive aspect. But on some of the other fire stuff, the devil’s in the details.”
One detail that could have a big impact on Montana involves a new direction for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It gets $1 billion for its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant program.
Joshua Lynsen at the Land Trust Alliance highlighted that provision, noting it “pivot(s) the agency from reactive, post-disaster spending toward a proactive investment in community resilience with a focus on natural infrastructure.”
A FEMA spokesperson on Friday confirmed the agency was repositioning itself to “focus on system-wide critical lifelines and large projects that protect infrastructure and community systems.” Along with the new community grant program, it has authorization to spend $800 million on dam safety and removal, $3.5 billion on flood mitigation, $1 billion on cybersecurity grants, and $500 million for the Safeguarding Tomorrow Through Ongoing Risk Mitigation (STORM) Act revolving loan fund.
Lynsen added the infrastructure bill has money for new interstate electric transmission projects, “including safeguards to avoid disrupting sensitive environmental and cultural heritage sites. This language could provide important protection for lands in conservation status as our nation shifts to more electrification and away from fossil fuels.” That could help wind and solar projects get their electricity to larger residential markets.
The bill contains $600 million for pay raises and job changes for wildland firefighters, including creating year-round positions for at least 1,000 now-seasonal workers. Pay rates are set to increase by either $20,000 or 50%, depending on position.
“The infrastructure bill is a good start,” Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, told Stateline news. “But it doesn’t address all the issues and challenges that the wildland fire community is facing."
About $2.2 billion would go to prescribed burning, forest thinning, construction of fuel breaks and community fire-defense grants. Another $600 million will be spent on post-fire restoration, wood-product innovation, Forest Service and Interior Department fire training, and construction of temporary roads to reduce fire risk.
A $60 million line item pays for grants for wood energy programs. And $20 million goes to the Joint Fire Science Program, based in Missoula and Bozeman.
American Forests analysts estimate the bill will affect about 14.8 million acres of public land through restoration, recovery and reforestation work. And that might just be the edge of the woodpile. AF Senior Vice President for Policy Leslie Jones said the pending Build Back Better act could add another $30 billion in spending on biodiversity, landscape restoration, water quality improvement and landslide mitigation on the national forests.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Wes Swaffar's name.