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The U.S. Forest Service wants to speed up work on national forests, for both timber production and forest health.

"Collaboration is most effective in getting forests managed in a proper way," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a conference call on Thursday. "We want to move beyond the conflicts in the past that slowed progress down. We're going to look to encourage environmentalists, folks in the forest industry, people who live in forest communities and other stakeholders to work for healthy forests."

Vilsack pledged the Forest Service would boost its lumber production from 2.4 billion board feet in 2011 to 3 billion board feet by 2014. That would come through a 20 percent increase in forest acres treated over the next three years.

Those treatments also include fuels reduction, reforestation, stream restoration, road decommissioning, culvert work and prescribed fire, as well as timber harvesting.

Much of it will be paid for with $40 million in new congressional funding for local forest projects this year. That's up from $25 million last year, the first time Congress authorized money for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.

Montana's Southwest Crown of the Continent forest project was one of the first 10 selected for the program, receiving $4 million in 2011. It should receive that amount again in 2012, according to Forest Service director of forest management Cal Joyner.

"By increasing the scale of areas we look at, we're planning and considering larger parts of the landscape," Joyner said. "That leads to a greater pace of activity."

Idaho had one project approved last year in the Selway-Middle Fork Clearwater region. This year, the state has two more: the Weiser-Little Salmon Headwaters Project for $2.4 million and the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative for $324,000.

The board feet expansion could have a significant effect in the Forest Service's Region 1, which includes Montana, according to Montana Wood Products Association director Julia Altemus.

"That would be about 360 million board feet coming off Region 1," Altemus said. "That's a lot. The target is usually 270 million to 300 million, so they're looking at doubling that. I'm not sure they're going to have the personnel capacity (in the Forest Service) to do that."

The acceleration should not cause problems with local state initiatives like Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's proposed Forest Jobs and Restoration Act or a similar measure proposed in Oregon, Vilsack said. Those measures would also require the Forest Service to increase the pace of forest work, such as Tester's mandate for treating at least 10,000 acres of Montana national forests a year.

"I don't see we're going to be working in conflict," Vilsack said. "We're going to be working cooperatively and collaboratively to make sure that we get the best use of the forest opportunities we have."

The Forest Service work would also include bark beetle treatment, projects to improve watershed health and wildlife habitat, improving markets for wood products like biomass-based fuels and efforts to boost recreation opportunities, Vilsack said.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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