U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke introduced legislation late Wednesday requiring those who challenge Forest Service timber sales to post bonds with their lawsuits, simplifying collaborative forest projects to yes-or-no analyses and allowing state governments to fund national forest wildfire-prevention work.
“The National Forest Collaborative Incentive Act of 2015 will help address the two leading threats against our forests, predatory litigation and wildfires, without adding new regulations to communities and loggers or adding costs to taxpayers,” Zinke, R-Mont., said in a written statement.
"By implementing common-sense reforms to encourage collaboration on projects and discourage out-of-state special interests from waging war on Montana foresting communities, I am confident Montana can rebuild our timber industry and conserve our forests for generations to come," he said.
The bill text and number were not available at press time. But in his statement, Zinke said it would boost Montana’s timber industry by allowing the state to contribute to a revolving fund that the Forest Service could use for reducing wildfire threats.
It would also limit analysis of forest projects proposed by collaborative groups to “action” or “no action” alternatives, rather than multiple choices. And it would require litigants who challenge collaborative projects to post cash bonds to cover the administrative costs of a lawsuit.
“Responsible forest stewardship in Montana is too important to leave to judicial digression,” Montana Logging Association executive director Keith Olson said in a statement. “Congressman Zinke’s bill includes common-sense reforms that strengthen collaborative projects against out-of-state litigants and helps protect our forests from wildfires. Montana loggers are committed to responsible and sustainable timber harvests that build local economies. Rep. Zinke’s reforms help us do just that.”
But Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity, who has launched many of the lawsuits Zinke cited, said the bill would mean more government waste.
“The Forest Service loses money on timber sales,” Garrity said. “Stopping illegal timber sales doesn’t cost taxpayers money – it saves taxpayers money. If you pour enough federal pork into a local town, it will create jobs. But I thought Congressman Zinke was a Republican who did not support socialism.”
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Garrity also called the bonding requirement unconstitutional.
“If a bond is required, only rich people will continue to assert their First Amendment right to challenge government decisions,” Garrity said.
Zinke’s bill is likely one of several reform measures aimed at the Forest Service this year.
Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines held listening sessions on forestry improvements across the state much of last winter, while Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is still considering reintroducing his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
Other members of Congress have also declared their intention to revise the way the Forest Service harvests trees and pays for wildfire.
Montana Wood Products Association director Julia Altemus said she saw a draft of Zinke’s bill last week, but hadn’t seen the final version yet. Even then, she said it would go through lots of negotiations.
“Remember, it’s going to have to have bipartisan support and get through the White House,” Altemus said. “I hope people will keep their powder dry and not fall back in positions and fight about it. We should try to get most of what everybody’s looking for.”