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U.S. Sen. Steve Daines toured timber projects in the Ten Mile drainage Tuesday, saying he wanted to see firsthand the combined efforts of state and federal agencies to provide jobs while managing the forest and reducing the risk of wildfire to the watershed.

Daines toured the active Red Mountain Flume-Chessman Reservoir project and the proposed Tenmile-South Helena project with officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the city of Helena. The trip was a chance to see the Forest Service and DNRC working together under a joint stewardship agreement to actively manage the forest, and to talk about possible reforms aimed at increasing management, he said.

“(Wildfire) can have devastating impacts harming the watershed, certainly on air quality as well as wildlife and people,” Daines said.

The Ten Mile area was hard hit by the mountain pine beetle, leaving swaths of dead trees surrounding sources of the city’s water supply. Officials pushed for the Red Mountain Flume-Chessman Reservoir project, including logging and prescribed burning across 500-acres, as a means to mitigate threats from fire.

Two environmental groups sued the Forest Service to stop the project, saying in part that it would damage wildlife habitat and not achieve the goal of protecting the water supply. The suit was ultimately withdrawn.

The significantly larger Tenmile-South Helena covers a 60,000-acre project area in the drainage, and is currently in the analysis phase.

“What we saw today was good news with the agencies here, and their ability to put egos aside is heartening,” Daines said of shared jurisdiction.

Daines supports reforms to increase the pace and scale of forest management, including changes to wildfire funding and bonding for environmental litigants.

Under current wildfire budgeting procedures, in an above-average fire season, the Forest Service must borrow funds from other programs if it exceeds its fire budget. Daines has pushed for legislation funding those above-budget years with disaster funding similar to other natural disasters, eliminating the practice of borrowing existing funds.

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“Those dollars could be used to reduce the risk of wildfire and actively manage a forest. Instead, it’s used fighting fires,” he said. “Why isn’t a wildfire where 1 percent of wildfires burn up to 30 percent of a budget, funded as natural disasters?”

On the issue of litigation, Daines called a bill recently introduced by U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke proposing litigants post a bond a “good start.” A companion bill in the Senate is a necessary step, and Daines said those conversations have been occurring.

“I think a couple of key points for me is to incentivize and reward collaboration and incentivize the bottom up approach to forest management here in Montana,” he said. “At the same time to reduce these obstructive lawsuits from these serial litigants who try to stop these team projects that have support from the state of Montana and the people of Montana and get held up in court.”

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Zinke’s bill was blasted in a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Independent Record by Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Garrity called the bill an affront to civil liberties and unconstitutional for inhibiting citizens’ ability to challenge the federal government.

Litigation bonding does not stop an individual from litigating, but does offer more accountability for those who sue, Daines said.

Daines also has some interest in reforms to the Equal Access to Justice Act, which covers attorney fees when litigants successfully sue. Under current law, if a litigant prevails on any provision of a multi-complaint lawsuit, attorneys can be compensated for their full expenses.

A potential change would provide compensation only for the portions of the lawsuit that succeed, reducing the “incentive to litigate and obstruct,” Daines said.

“Right now we’ve got a situation in northwest Montana where we’ve virtually lost our entire timber industry, and we’re receiving zero revenue from an industry that used to be part of those communities,” he said.

Getting 60 votes in the Senate is the bottom line to seeing any of the legislation make it to the president’s desk, Daines said, meaning bipartisan support is critical. A potential companion bill to Zinke’s could be introduced as early as later this summer, he added.

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

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