As a Missoula County Commissioner, one of the issues that I am most passionate about is the utilization of our forest resources for public benefit. Those living in Missoula County, including residents of Missoula, Lolo, Seeley Lake, Frenchtown and all of our communities, tend to have a balanced perspective on forest management for a few reasons.
First, our county boundaries overlap with three federal wilderness areas that offer invaluable recreational opportunity – the Rattlesnake, the Bob Marshall and the Mission Mountains. Second, our county contains immense timber resources and those resources have been a major driver of our local economy for generations. We continue to benefit from hundreds of direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs provided by Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Roseburg Forest Products, Willis Enterprises, and other timber-related companies. In Missoula County, we understand the benefits of resource development and resource conservation.
Judging by the popularity of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the increase in collaborative land management across the state, I would purport that most Montanans recognize the need for balance. The Missoula County Commission has always supported the forest jobs bill because it addresses all sides of the issue: timber, wildland restoration, conservation, and recreation. While we often refer to this as Sen. Jon Tester’s bill, he is the first to tell you that it was hammered out by people in Montana. They represent a diverse group of people, including loggers, hikers, fisherman, hunters and environmentalists. They came together to forge a compromise on three forests in Montana that would increase timber harvest, decrease hazardous fuels in our wildland urban interface, restore watersheds, place some lands into the National Wilderness Preservation system and release certain wilderness study areas for other uses. The bill also guarantees access for recreation, hunting, camping, fishing and continued grazing rights.
Early in the New Year, I had an opportunity to join a wide range of Montanans, including several county commissioners, in a meeting with Rep. Steve Daines to discuss this legislation. During this meeting, Daines stated that
10 percent of the population thinks the bill doesn’t have enough wilderness and
10 percent think it doesn’t have enough timber harvest. My encouragement to him was to listen to those in the middle who represent the majority.
Daines also emphasized the need for legislation to increase timber harvest on a national scale. My response to him was that national legislation is important, but that Montana timber mills can’t wait for a national solution. I have a real concern that if we wait until a national consensus emerges then we won’t have any mills left in Montana and the jobs they support will be long gone. Knowing how long it took diverse interests in Montana to find a compromise, I do not think we can afford to take the time to work out solutions nationwide. We don’t want to lose all of the infrastructure necessary to manage our forests as other western states have experienced.
The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is a balanced bill that includes critically needed forest reform to increase timber harvest, advance forest restoration and protect our outdoor traditions. Because it is a balanced bill, it passed out of a Senate committee in December with bipartisan support, including the vote of Republican Sen. Jim Risch, from Idaho, a state that has also experienced severe declines in timber infrastructure.
We only have one congressman in Montana and it is very important for him to support this Montana-crafted bill. We are counting on him to represent our support for a Montana solution to a Montana problem. Without a near-term solution, we will face more mill closures and the loss of timber related jobs, like loggers, truck drivers and mechanics. We will also miss an important opportunity to safeguard our outdoor traditions in places like the beautiful Seeley-Swan valley.
Daines, please support this balanced solution that includes local input. We’ve worked hard to find consensus in Montana and time is running out to find a solution.
Jean Curtiss is chairwoman of the Missoula County Board of Commissioners.