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Chessman Reservoir Logging

An operator loads a log truck with freshly harvested beetle kill near Chessman Reservoir in 2014. Gov. Bullock signed an executive order Monday forming the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council. The body includes loggers, conservation groups, tribes and state and federal agencies.

The state of Montana is updating its plan for managing forests and working across jurisdictions to identify and address areas of wildfire and forest health concerns.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order Monday forming the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council. The body, with membership including loggers, conservation groups, tribes and state and federal agencies, will meet over the next year to update the 2010 Montana Forest Action Plan. The plan is due for revision by 2020 and will implement programs aimed at increasing the state’s role in forest management statewide.

“We’re charged with two things: one is to create an assessment of forest conditions for the state of Montana, and the second part is given those conditions, what do we need to do, what are priority areas for active forest restoration and management to mitigate wildfire risk?” said Montana State Forester Sonya Germann.

Earlier this year, Bullock implemented the Forests in Focus 2.0 Initiative to conduct forestry projects on federal land through a program called “Good Neighbor Authority.” A portion of revenues from those projects can be held by the state to fund future good neighbor projects.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation acts as a convener of federal agencies and interested parties in moving the action plan forward, Germann said. By working across jurisdictions, the plan aims to increase its work to landscape scales.

“The Legislature expects from us that we at DNRC are charged with representing the interests of Montana from a fire protection and forestry perspective,” Germann said. “We do a really good job planning for these little patches here or there, but this effort is really bringing this conversation to a larger scale and across ownerships.”

Expected focuses of the action plan include areas of insect infestations, disease and wildfire risk to urban areas, infrastructure and water. To inform the action plan, the council will receive data and science as to what is driving forest trends, including climate science, she said.

Montana saw its most expensive fire season on record in 2017, with costs to the state reaching more than $74 million and the total bill tallying $400 million. That left the state with just $4 million going into last year's fire season.

Things look much better as this fire season approaches, Bullock's budget director Tom Livers said Monday.

At the start of the fiscal year, which is July 1, the fund will have about $38 million, with about $20.5 million coming from the state's general fund and another $15 million from a deal the administration reached with the private operator of a prison in Shelby to renew its contact.

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The governor also has access to $16 million in emergency funds over the biennium on top of the fire fund. Livers said the budget staff is figuring for about $6 million of that to go toward flooding costs this spring.

Patrick Holmes, Bullock's policy adviser for natural resources, said Bullock will receive his annual fire briefing June 7, but as of now the "outlook is a normal fire season or below average," though Holmes noted there's still a decent amount of time before the season hits and things can change.

A typical fire season costs somewhere around $22 million.

While the council includes more than 20 members, Germann says they are experienced working in forest collaboratives and DNRC will hire a facilitator to oversee meetings. The council is expected to meet six to eight times over the coming year and will hold public meetings and take public comment on the action plan.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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