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Collaboration was the word du jour as U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary James Hubbard made the rounds in Missoula on Thursday.

As he toured the Missoula Smokejumper Base Thursday morning, Hubbard heard how various firefighting entities collaborate to try to find the best ways to allow wildfires on Montana's fire-dependent landscape while protecting communities.

At a roundtable discussion with Rep. Greg Gianforte after the tour, Hubbard heard about the needs for incentives to bring all interested parties to the table when it comes to timber harvests and salvage logging.

Hubbard wrapped up the day with a question-and-answer session with Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney at the Montana Forest Collaboration Network’s workshop, in which they discussed the need for shared stewardship among federal, state and local partners. Hubbard praised the various organizations involved in the network, noting that Montana and Idaho’s efforts to work across jurisdictions is the best he’s seen in the west.

He talked about the federal Shared Stewardship Strategy, in which the Department of Agriculture works with state partners to try to do the right work in the right place at the right scale. Often, that active management focuses on how much timber is harvested, but Hubbard said his boss, Sonny Perdue, knows that output doesn’t always equate to the proper outcome.

“We need to find mutual priorities to address what we want to address,” Hubbard said. “How we get there is something we have yet to define. But it is about mutual priorities.

“When we talk about communities at risk … we can’t protect them unless we have a few of the right ingredients. That means you need to treat the land and that’s not one jurisdiction. When you look at an analysis of fire and where it goes, that’s typically more than federal land; it’s federal, state and private, so all that land treatment needs to be taken into account.”

Hubbard added that when the Shared Stewardship Strategy was unveiled, Gov. Steve Bullock was one of the first to call about it.

“By the way, you have it a little bit wrong. Our Forests in Focus 2.0 already does that,” Hubbard added with a laugh.

The Forests in Focus 2.0 is part of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in which key stakeholders work to address the most pressing needs in forest health and wildfire risk across Montana.

Hubbard also touted the U.S. Forest Service Region 1, which is based in Missoula, for its use of the Good Neighbor Authority. Under that program, state and federal agencies work in close partnership with industry and conservation groups to increase the amount of forest restoration. A large part of the program involves state agencies working on federal lands.

“We have 216 agreements in 38 states, and Region 1 is the leader,” Hubbard said. “It’s created having the right skill sets in the right place to get the wildfire hazard diminished.”

He added that more timber has been harvested on Forest Service lands in 2018 than what took place in the past 20 years, and 2019 exceeded that.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Hubbard said.

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Amid all the positive talk about collaboration, however, Hubbard did hear concerns about the struggles still facing the timber and forest industries, communities and land managers.

He heard about standing dead timber stands in the Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forests that aren't being removed, while loggers and mills are struggling.

“If you’re going to treat acres mechanically, there needs to be more dollars to help that take place,” said Bryan Lorengo with the Montana Logging Association. “One of the toughest factors affecting contractors is the limited operating season.”

Tom Schultz with the Idaho Forest Group in St. Regis said they’re looking at making a large investment in infrastructure, but they need more certainty in the future supply of timber.

Jennifer Nelson, a Lincoln County forester, told Hubbard she appreciates the new programs, but they could use more direction.

“They’re good tools, but we still need to learn how to use them,” Nelson said. “There’s a general feeling across the agencies that we don’t really know how to proceed, especially with the Good Neighbor Authority.”

And many others complained about the amount of litigation over timber sales, which Hubbard said could be alleviated through a more collaborative process. But when pushed on why conservation groups are not only suing but often winning their lawsuits, Hubbard said it’s not that the land managers are breaking the laws, but it's how the judicial system interprets the laws.

“Different people see things different ways,” Hubbard said. “The idea is to agree to come together” and come up with solutions that everyone can support.

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