Montana's forestry agency is working with federal, local and private organizations to increase logging on national forests to improve forest health and decrease the risk of disease and catastrophic fires.
State lawmakers are supporting a $2.2 million request from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to hire people to help implement the Good Neighbor Authority program.
Montana's forestlands are deteriorating because of insects and disease, fire seasons are lasting longer and the numbers of acres burned has increased 15-fold over the past 20 years, Forestry Division Administrator Sonya Germann told a House appropriations subcommittee in January. Poor forest health impacts drinking and irrigation water, recreational assets, homes, communities and fish and wildlife habitat, she said.
The Good Neighbor Authority, created in the 2014 Farm Bill, allows the DNRC to contract timber sales on U.S. Forest Service land, with some of the proceeds being used to treat diseased trees, clear dead trees and improve fish and wildlife habitat. The DNRC has to follow the same federal environmental laws the Forest Service would have to meet in offering sales.
"When I look at this program I think this is probably the best thing the government has created in I don't know how long, because it's brought in partners, industries are investing in it," Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck told the subcommittee. Lincoln County invested $10,000, he said, and hired a county forester.
Libby's economy has been devastated by the reduction in logging projects on the Kootenai National Forest, which also has caused fuels to build up, he said.
"The last three years we've just had devastating, catastrophic fire up there," he said. "We've lost homes."
"It's not all about logging, it's about public safety, it's about forest health and obviously the economy comes into play too," Peck said.
The DNRC has received financial pledges from the timber industry, business and conservation partners and just over $550,000 from the U.S. Forest Service to help start the program. The state agency bid out two projects last fall and many more are in the works, Germann said.
"We believe in this work," Germann told the subcommittee. "This isn't just a job for us. We see this as a higher calling to do more on behalf of forestry in the state of Montana."
Tom Schultz, the vice president of government affairs for the Idaho Forest Group, is the former director of the Idaho Department of Lands and helped start the Good Neighbor Authority program there, noting even the very conservative Idaho legislature supported he program.
The Idaho Forest Group put in the winning $365,000 bid for a logging project on the Kootenai National Forest last October while Sun Mountain Lumber had the high bid of nearly $435,000 for a logging and thinning project on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Michael Garrity, the executive director of the conservation group the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said his organization opposed the Beaverhead-Deerlodge sale, but didn't challenge it in court.
He questions whether DNRC has staff with adequate experience to meet the requirements of federal environmental reviews.
"It could result in more litigation rather than less," he said Friday, adding: "Really what they're doing is just subsidizing the timber industry."
Montana has lost about 30 lumber mills over the last three decades along with about 4,000 employees, said Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Industry, which has pledged $450,000 to help start the forest management program.
Increasing the number of sales will level out the timber prices, get more loggers working, get more wood to the mills and improve forest health, Altemus said.
The effort also will decrease the spread of disease and fire to state and private lands, Germann said Friday.
"Fire, smoke, insects and disease don't abide by any boundaries, so why should we do that with forest management?" she asked.