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Gov. Steve Bullock, center, listens to Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co. Resource Manager Gordy Sanders explain timber harvest concerns during a presentation in Seeley Lake on Tuesday while Madison County Commissioner Dave Shultz watches. Bullock unveiled an initiative by the Western Governor's Association to improve national forest management.

SEELEY LAKE – Since Congress has not been effective in addressing issues affecting timber and grazing lands in the West, Gov. Steve Bullock wants his fellow Western governors to fill the void.

Using Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co. as a backdrop, Bullock, chair of the Western Governors Association, championed an initiative that calls for the 19 states and three Pacific territories to push for more cooperation in setting the agenda for management of their natural landscapes.

To accomplish that, Bullock said all WGA initiatives would have to be introduced by both a Democrat and Republican member of the association and would have to be approved by a super majority of the WGA's membership.

“It hasn’t been getting done in Congress,” he said. “This is to say ‘How can we better inform Congress on things?’ If Democratic and Republican governors throughout the western states, where the vast majority of the lands are actually held, can come together, hopefully that can inform them how we can go forward.”

While the program has several moving parts, Bullock said the first effort would go toward congressional action on wildfire funding.

“It’s far past time to change the way fire funding and fire borrowing occurs,” he said, referring to a U.S. Forest Service practice of raiding other annual program budgets to pay for uncovered forest fire costs. “That’s one area that we’ve already come together. We’ve seen a bipartisan movement where this is something that could be attained by the end of the year.”

Other proposals include an investigation of collaborative forest projects to learn why some are more effective than others. Recent research by the University of Montana has shown collaborative projects may lose support because the process is too cumbersome and too unlikely to produce results for many volunteer stakeholders to remain committed.

WGA plans to set up a series of workshops around the West to share state best practices and other ways of sustaining forest projects. Those range from opening forests for timber harvest to protecting areas for wildlife or recreation values. They also could affect grazing on public lands and water conservation. The affected states hold 75 percent of the continental United States’ national forest and rangeland.

Pyramid controller Loren Rose said such projects must balance people’s yearning for economic stability, cleaner water and more recreational opportunities.

“It’s a very slippery slope,” Rose said. “The winner has to be the landscape. I want to thank the governor for choosing this place to launch this initiative.”

The choice of location came in part because of Pyramid’s long participation in the Blackfoot Challenge – a volunteer network of landowners, businesses, conservation groups and government agencies that has set national precedents for cooperative land management.

Blackfoot Challenge Chairman and rancher Jim Stone said the trick has been a willingness to listen to one another.

“We’re the people putting food and fiber in front of the world,” Stone said. “But we all need to talk together. This can’t come solely from the government. We’re ready to go to work with you.”

Bullock said the initiative’s projects would roll out over the next several years.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.