Citing an urgent need to address the failing health of Montana’s national forests, Gov. Steve Bullock nominated over 5 million acres for priority forest restoration work under the 2014 Farm Bill.

The bill contains a provision for the governor to nominate forest lands impacted by insects and disease to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. If accepted, those lands move into an expedited process for forest management, including logging, for the next 15 years. In a news release, the governor called his nominations the first step in creating healthier forests and jump-starting Montana’s wood-products industry.

“There is a lot of work to be done in the woods: to reduce fire risk, protect communities and municipal water supplies, and preserve and repair key streams and fisheries,” Bullock said. “The health of our integrated wood products industry is critical as we look toward the future — the forest industry workforce is a vital tool to implement forest restoration projects that address these issues.”

The governor added that healthy forests can act as valuable stores of carbon in combating climate change.

Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association and member of a collaborative that recommended the nominations, applauded the decision. She said the nominations will give the Forest Service another tool to increase the pace and scale of forest management on effected lands and provide some certainty to timber mills on the supply of logs.

“It’s sustainable over the course of the next 15 years,” Altemus said. “Mills will know where their timber supplies will come from. They haven’t run at full capacity in years, and they’ll be able to hire a few people.”

Altemus added that the timing of the nominations are key because Montana is seeing a strong demand for forest products.

Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, challenged the claim that logging would prevent the risk of wildfire, or that beetle-killed forests should be considered unhealthy because of benefits to wildlife and other resources. Garrity cited research by the University of Colorado and Colorado State University that found commercial logging did not mitigate the severity of large scale fires.

“I’m afraid this is just an excuse for more clear-cutting without any scientific backing,” Garrity said. “What they’re really saying is they want more corporate welfare for the timber industry.”

Garrity called the final acreage of nominated forest lands misleading, because they were based on the total area of the forest rather than only forested land. The actual percentage of impacted forest land is much higher, he said.

Garrity added that the Alliance does support logging within 150 feet of structures to prevent property damage by wildfire, but that research has shown anything beyond that does nothing to mitigate structure fires.

Both of Montana’s U.S. senators threw their support behind the land nominations.

“You can’t drive across Montana without noticing the devastation caused by the pine beetle. We must take action to clean up our forests. I urge Secretary Vilsack to take a close look at Governor Bullock’s proposal,” Sen. Jon Tester said in a statement.

“Montana forests need better management to restore forest health, improve fish and wildlife habitat, and reduce the risk of fire,” said Sen. John Walsh in a statement. “I applaud Governor Bullock for taking advantage of this important Farm Bill initiative and look forward to working with him and Montana’s stakeholders to implement it.”

Montana’s regional forester for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Bob Harrington, said the agency convened a collaborative group of forest industry representatives, conservation groups, county commissioners and Forest Service personnel to identify the lands. The collaborative had only 60 days to respond to the USDA with its nominations, he said, and the time crunch required a lot of hard work by the members.

Harrington said the collaborative was careful to follow the provision of the Farm Bill in identifying only those forest lands they thought the USDA would approve. The final tally represents around 30 percent of Montana’s national forests.

“We’ve had some discussions with the regional office (Forest Service) and are fairly confident that the majority if not all will meet the criteria,” he said. “That was something the governor was concerned about and we were as well, that we not nominate land that did not meet that criteria.”

Harrington continued that the forest products industry will play an important role in both the implementation and funding for future forest work.

“It’s an expectation of mine and DNRC that the market value of timber will help pay for those projects,” Harrington said. “I think the forest industry will both be a valuable asset as well as benefit with the supply of logs to their mills.”

Tom Kuglin Helena Independent Record​

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