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As county commissioners from Madison, Ravalli, Lincoln, Sweet Grass, Jefferson and Mineral counties, we are writing to rebuke former state Rep. Al Luebeck’s recent opinion (Jan. 28) attacking U.S. Rep. Steve Daines for his support of the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act.

While most of his arguments are based on his misinterpretation of Daines’ legislation, we do agree with Luebeck that Montana’s outdoors heritage is one-of-a-kind, and we must care for our public lands in a responsible way to ensure they will always be, as Luebeck states, “managed to

provide the values we treasure so much.”

That’s exactly what the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act does. This bill also works to address one of the biggest problems affecting our public lands, which Luebeck never mentions: devastating wildfires.

In 2012, wildfires reportedly burned more than 9 million acres across the United States, while between 65 million and

82 million additional acres of Forest Service lands were at high risk of wildfires. Meanwhile, only 200,000 acres were harvested – meaning wildfires account for nearly 50 times more acreage than any responsibly harvested area.

Montana’s forest health? Mountain pine beetle has killed trees on more than

5 million acres in Montana since the current outbreak began and approximately 500,000 acres of national forest lands in Montana are currently infested with bark beetles.

Meanwhile, the timber industry in Montana has declined by 90 percent in the last few decades– risking thousands of jobs in our state. Daines’ bill would not only create between 4,000 and 6,000 jobs in Montana, but also allow our public lands to receive the attention they need.

Daines’ bill would increase harvests on Forest Service commercial lands, which are areas already identified for timber harvest, to a volume that would still be 40 percent lower than production generations ago – hardly allowing our federal forests to be “clearcut.”

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Just as importantly, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act re-establishes its commitment to the Secure Rural Schools initiative, which has provided counties containing public lands with revenues they need to fund schools, infrastructure and essential services. Our heavily forested counties rely on these funds because the federal government doesn’t pay taxes on any of its land. Providing 25 percent of timber sales revenue to the county to offset this loss in tax revenue to serve its schools and infrastructure is hardly “an extreme measure.”

Luebeck also argues that the bill would disregard important safeguards meant to protect wildlife, the environment and recreational activities, but studies show active management actually improves wildlife habitat and our forests for future generations.

Trees in early seral stages provide important nutrition for much of Montana’s wildlife, and a reduction in tree removal projects is directly linked to a decline in these animals. Contrary to Luebeck’s assertions, an actively managed forest with trees at all stages of growth is ideal for Montana’s wildlife populations.

Additionally, the bill will actually promote local control and empower Montanans to make decisions about forest management by creating Community Forest Demonstration Areas, which will allow local authorities to actively manage portions of their federal lands. This is a far cry from the “environmental abuses” outlined by Luebeck.

We applaud Daines for his work to manage and care for our national forests. As Luebeck mentions, our national forests really are “a big part of the public lands legacy we cherish in Montana,” and it is important that we manage these lands in a way that will allow us to continue that legacy. Daines’ efforts will help us do so.

This opinion is signed by Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel; Ravalli County Commissioner Suzy Foss; Lincoln County commissioners Mike Cole, Tony Berget and Ron Downey; Sweet Grass County Commissioner Bob Faw; Jefferson County commissioners Leonard Wortman, Dave Kirsch and Bob Mullen; and Mineral County commissioners Laurie Johnson, Roman Zylawy and Duane Simons.

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