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The U.S. Forest Service recognizes that it must significantly increase forest restoration work to alleviate threats from wildfire and to improve forest and watershed health, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Tidwell spoke at the regional conference of district rangers in Helena on Thursday. He then sat down with the Independent Record to discuss challenges and potential solutions for an agency that has seen funding for many programs drop while needs have continued to climb.

“Demands are greater than they’ve ever been for our mission, and we’re doing it with fewer employees. I recognize how difficult it is,” he said. “With the consolidations we’ve had to do, I don’t like those, but it’s just the reality of doing everything we can to get the most work done on the ground.”

Costs for fire suppression have climbed by $740 million since 2003, and those additional funds must come from elsewhere in the Forest Service budget. Staffing has also increased for fire while dropping 35 percent across the rest of the agency during that time.

An idea that has seen increasing support would place costs for the top 1 percent of fires generating the highest response and funding onto an adjusted cap on the agency’s annual budget, Tidwell said. That would make the worst and most expensive fires funded like other natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes, paid for without reducing other services.

“It’s so disruptive when we have to stop doing the work, putting people out of work because we have to stop and pull money back to transfer money to pay for suppression,” Tidwell said. “Congress pays that money back over time, but we’ve already lost that time and it’s often in our prime field season in August and September.”

Tidwell understands some of the frustrations over federal land management and the related movement to transfer federal lands to state control, but said he would rather focus on addressing the concerns of frustrated communities and states.

The 2014 Farm Bill provides the Forest Service the authority to form stewardship agreements and to categorically exclude from full analysis timber projects endorsed by local collaboratives up to 3,000 acres. While some environmental groups have levied criticism on the bill for expediting logging without typical public input, supporters cite a need to streamline projects in critically unhealthy areas.

“Especially here in Montana where we have strong collaborative efforts, you’ll often get a strong consensus because there’s agreement on what needs to move forward,” Tidwell said.

The Farm Bill also provides the Forest Service good neighbor authority to reduce costs by combining contracts with state or private landowners, he said. Federal partnerships with the state of Montana have already succeeded and can serve as a model for the rest of the country, he added.

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Region 1, which includes Montana, reached its timber harvest goal for the first time in more than a decade last year. That milestone came as a result of hard work and a better understanding through local collaboratives endorsing important projects, Tidwell said. But more is needed, he added.

“Recognize there’s a need for us to expand the level, pace and scale of the restoration of our forests and grasslands in this country,” Tidwell said. “We’re making good progress, but there’s work that needs to be done.”

Timber sales typically generate the majority of concern over restoration projects, but timber harvest is only a portion of the overall goals and often not understood by critics or litigants, he said.

“We're focused on improving the resiliency and health of our forests and watersheds, and the biomass, the saw timber is one of the key outputs, but in most cases that’s not the driving purpose of our projects,” Tidwell said. “If we could take a step back and look at the whole mix of benefits that come off these landscapes it could help to reduce some of the controversy, and we have made great strides bringing people together.”

Clean air, clean water and economic drivers from timber, recreation and tourism are all parts of restoration’s “big picture,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester recently misstated that environmental groups litigate every timber sale, which resulted in backlash from some in the environmental community. While the statement was false, Tidwell said litigation has a significant impact on the ability to work. Staff time that could be spent on other projects is dedicated to providing information to attorneys, he said.

“The challenge we have to address is what’s behind the litigation -- it’s essential that we find ways to address those issues,” Tidwell said, reiterating the importance of communicating overall project goals.

Tidwell acknowledged employee frustrations over funding and staffing woes coupled with increasing workloads, but he believes morale among the Forest Service remains high. Despite a perception of stagnation, the agency is accomplishing more with fewer employees than it did in the past, and staff should be reminded of what they accomplish and feel proud, he said.

“From my view it’s not a morale issue when you see things like here in Montana with the state coming together and really wanting to pitch in and make a difference,” Tidwell said. “The state wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t recognize that the Forest Service is working hard to do the right thing and to get more done.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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