DEER LODGE — Blocking frivolous lawsuits and boosting emergency spending on wildfires would help restore Montana’s forests to better health, Rep. Greg Gianforte said while touring clearcuts in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest on Monday.
“Healthier forests give more habitat for wildlife, increased sporting opportunities, they’re good for our economy, they create jobs, and they reduce the intensity and catastrophic nature of fires,” Gianforte said. “Everybody wins.”
To do that, the first-term Montana Republican congressman has co-sponsored a bill by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, to accomplish those goals and speed up the approval process for some forest management projects. H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, may reach a vote of the full House of Representatives on Wednesday or Thursday.
"I’m confident we’ll work it through the House,” Gianforte said. “We need a little help from the Senate so it becomes law so we don’t have to breathe our forests again next summer.”
The two representatives toured parts of the East Deer Lodge Landscape Restoration Project and Sun Mountain Lumber Co.'s Deer Lodge sawmill on Monday. The 40,000-acre project includes about 2,500 acres of harvestable timber, as well as other sites where crews cleared out large stands of beetle-killed lodgepole pine.
Westerman said federal forests in Arkansas had shown the capability of removing unmarketable small trees, improving habitat for endangered species and still producing enough valuable sawlogs to pay for the work. He added that new markets for wood products such as liquid biofuel, fuel pellets and cross-laminated timber could also grow with more active forest management.
However, he acknowledged that pellet fuel markets weren’t big enough to absorb all the thinning material coming out of forests. And a blue-ribbon commission report commissioned by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities found the wood products sector invests barely a fifth of the U.S. manufacturing industry average in research and development.
At a roundtable discussion of the legislation at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Missoula Headquarters, Montana Wood Products Association Director Julia Altemus told the congressmen that litigation was the main threat to timber supply.
“In (Forest Service) Region 1, it’s really what hampers our ability to get into the forests,” Altemus said. That has forced the agency to spend nearly 60 percent of its time designing forest projects on “bullet-proofing” its defense on National Environmental Policy Act challenges, compared to just 20 percent in past years.
Gianforte responded that Westerman’s bill would restrain the opportunity for challengers of federal actions to get their legal expenses paid through the Equal Access to Judgement Act. He added that Congress needed to restrain a different legal challenge brought by a Montana case known as the Cottonwood decision, which requires programmatic review of forest plans when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changes the status of an endangered species that uses Forest Service habitat.
“That’s a really bad precedent for all of us,” Gianforte said. “About 140,000 acres of timber harvest are being held up by the Cottonwood decision.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana has drafted a bill that would congressionally overturn the Cottonwood decision, but it hasn’t been introduced yet. The programmatic review of a Canada lynx critical habitat update required by the original Cottonwood decision was completed on Oct. 18.
Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott supported more activity in the federal forests as a way of ensuring services to his county residents.
“In the 20th century, Ravalli County had 300,000 acres burned in wildfire,” Chilcott said. “Since 2000, we’ve lost 900,000 acres in 15 years. The data suggests that’s due to lack of management.”
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