Everyone loves a good story. But please spare Montanans empty promises about the future of our national forests.
In Washington, D.C., it’s often easier to make noise than progress. That’s certainly the case with H.R. 1526, the so-called “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act.” The name sounds great, but the fact is this radical bill has zero chance of becoming law and thus no chance of making a difference.
The bill is an ideological cousin of proposals to get rid of the U.S. Forest Service and “transfer” national forests to state or private interests. These are both hare-brained ideas that fall flat at the first breath of logic.
In fact, they provide nothing but insult for the rural communities their backers claim to represent.
The empty promises of H.R. 1526 stand in stark difference to the successful, real-world forest management efforts that are beginning to show results today across Montana.
Montanans are rightfully frustrated with management of our national forests. Too often, management decisions seem to be made by judges or politicians instead of professional foresters and biologists. Too often the local wisdom of Montanans is bypassed or overridden.
But the fact is, the backers of H.R. 1526 have held absolutely no field hearings, town-hall meetings or listening sessions in Montana about the bill. If folks in Montana were consulted, it is a well-kept secret. That’s the definition of a top-down, Beltway enterprise.
Here is what H.R. 1526 would do:
The legislation requires at least half of our national forests to be designated as “Forest Reserve Revenue Areas,” where commercial profit is prioritized above all other multiple uses. These “revenue areas” could blanket up to 14 million acres and include nearly 90 percent of Montana’s undeveloped backcountry. Special places like the Rocky Mountain Front, Swan Range or the Pryor mountains could become “revenue areas.”
The only national forest lands exempted from these revenue areas are wilderness areas like the Bob Marshall and the Lee Metcalf.
Past input Montanans have provided to the Forest Service about land management would be shoved aside. Opportunities for local leaders and community members to comment on Forest Service management decisions would be severely curtailed. The public would essentially lose much say in the management of their lands.
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Revenue areas would actually be counterproductive for Montana communities. Rural counties with limited property tax revenue because of federal holdings deserve a long-term, stable payment system. Unfortunately, H.R. 1526 could bankrupt some counties by subjecting them to the ups and downs of the international timber market. This approach was rightfully abandoned decades ago after it left local communities facing dramatic funding shortfalls.
There is a better way.
Across Montana, people of diverse backgrounds have been working alongside the Forest Service, bringing Montanans together to balance sustainable timber harvest, recreation and habitat improvement.
When Montanans from all walks of life work together and design forestry projects that make sense, they produce results.
The Colt Summit project near Seeley Lake was recently awarded to a local sawmill. This project weathered a legal storm but will provide logs for the local mill, along with major fish and wildlife habitat improvements for the Lolo National Forest and people who depend on it.
A judge recently gave a green light to Red Mountain Flume-Chessman Reservoir project on the Helena National Forest, designed to improve forest health and reduce fire risk around Helena’s municipal water sources.
Montana’s wood basket has always been the Kootenai National Forest. Today, 160 million board feet are under contract there, of which 90 percent is proceeding without litigation. These are projects like Sparring Bulls and South Fork Fuels, near Troy, where local sawmills and conservationists worked with local the Forest Service to design winning forest management projects.
Recently passed forestry provisions in the U.S. Farm Bill support these kinds of collaborative efforts and give the Forest Service more tools to manage forests and limit delays.
Were these easy? No.
But they are real solutions, not just politically motivated stories. The results are benefits on the land and fiber for mills.
Our national forests need solutions, but H.R. 1526 takes us the wrong direction. Its empty promises create far more problems than it solves.