Recent opinion writers in the Missoulian criticized President Donald Trump for his newfound interest in improving forest management. The deadly wildfires in California, coupled with the president’s tweets, have reignited a national debate over what can be done to protect lives and property. In Montana, however, there’s already a bipartisan consensus that action must be taken to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire.
Seven million acres of federal forests in Montana are at high or very high risk of wildfire, with 1.8 million acres of high-risk forestland near populated communities. Given the threats to Montana's federally owned forests, landscape restoration projects are needed to reduce fuel loads, thin overstocked and unhealthy stands, and restore structural diversity. These projects not only help improve the health of national forests, it supports Montana’s forest sector infrastructure and jobs.
To be sure, good things are happening in Montana to accelerate forest management on federal lands. Under the direction of the Missoula office, U.S. Forest Service Region 1 has been working to increase proactive management activities, and national forests have salvaged more dead and dying timber from recent wildfires to pay for reforestation. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has also been ramping up its “Good Neighbor Authority” program, which allows the agency to partner with the Forest Service to treat more acres on federal lands.
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These are positive developments. But to increase the pace and scale of forest treatments, the Forest Service still needs additional tools and resources to do more work, more quickly. They need relief from the obstructive litigation that is coming from just a few groups. Only Congress can provide these policies, and they shouldn’t miss the opportunity to pass forest management reforms in the Farm Bill.
Active forest management on federal lands is often held back by three factors: a lack of funding to prepare forest projects and timber sales; the significant cost and time it takes for federal agencies to satisfy environmental analysis and compliance requirements; and the obstruction and litigation that stalls much of the work that needs to be done. Litigation, in particular, continues to be a primary obstacle in Montana.
In recent years, litigation has encumbered up to 50 percent of USFS Region 1 planned timber harvest volume and treatment acres. Today, there are 28 timber sales under litigation in Montana, 21 of which are enjoined, preventing work on over 17,000 acres. The equivalent of 200 million board feet of wood is tied up in litigation.
In response, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduced his bipartisan Protect Collaboration for Healthier Forests Act that proposes a pilot project to provide arbitration to settle contentious forest management issues. Daines’ bill, endorsed by the Forest Service, establishes a pilot arbitration program authorizing the agency to use binding arbitration in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming as an alternative dispute resolution process for specific forest projects.
Daines also sought to include strong forest management reforms in the next Farm Bill, though Senate Democrats opposed including such measures in the Senate version. Thanks to the help of Congressman Greg Gianforte, the U.S. House approved a Farm Bill with effective reforms to expedite treatments on forests and watersheds that are at immediate risk of wildfire, insects and disease.
With millions of acres of forestland at risk, we should encourage U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and Congressman Gianforte to work together and pass a final Farm Bill that addresses the primary obstacles to forest management. Congressional action will support, and even accelerate, the good things that are happening to restore the health of our national forests and reduce the risks to lives and property.
Nick Smith is executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.