Members of Montana’s congressional delegation all played important roles in securing forestry and firefighting solutions in the recent federal appropriations bill. Among these solutions, fixing federal wildfire suppression funding and addressing the so-called “Cottonwood” court decision will enable our federal land managers to sharpen their focus on preventative management activities that improve the health of our forests. As a whole, it’s the most significant forestry package approved by Congress in 15 years.
Yet Congress’ work is not finished. Given the magnitude of the fire risks on our federal lands, more needs to be done by our elected officials to increase the pace and scale of management activities and promote the collaborative efforts that are leading to better outcomes for our forests and communities.
Because the wildfire funding reform won’t take effect until 2020, the U.S. Forest Service will continue to face spiraling suppression costs that hamper their ability to do more work on the ground. The Forest Service has already reported that they expect to exhaust their firefighting budget this year, despite Congress providing an extra $500 million in funding, and may be forced to redirect money away from preventative forest health programs once again.
Forest Service Region I continues to be saddled by obstructive litigation from fringe groups. The agency continues to be plagued by “analysis paralysis” and the considerable time and cost it takes the agency to satisfy well-intentioned but counterproductive regulatory requirements.
Just recently, the Bitterroot National Forest was forced to put a forest fuels reduction project on hold as it consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on grizzly bear habitat, even though the animals hadn’t been seen in the project area in years.
U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester were successful in addressing the Cottonwood court decision, which would have required the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to undergo even lengthier consultations at the forest plan level whenever new critical habitat is designated or a new species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Even though both the Obama and Trump administrations supported reversing the court decision entirely, the solution contained in the appropriations bill was weakened and is only temporary.
That’s why Daines understands the appropriations bill was simply one step toward the long-term goal of liberating the Forest Service to once again manage our forests for multiple use and benefits. He is continuing his efforts to find alternatives to costly forest litigation. Recently USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and the interim chief of the Forest Service endorsed his efforts his efforts to establish an arbitration program to get more forest projects out of the courtroom. Under his pilot arbitration program, hazardous fuels reduction projects developed through a collaborative process would be implemented more quickly.
U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte has also redoubled efforts to pass more comprehensive forest management reforms, similar to the Resilient Federal Forests Act the U.S. House has already approved. He was successful in including a number of forest management reforms in the House version of 2018 Farm Bill, including provisions to speed up projects that expedite salvage and restoration after catastrophic wildfires, create quality wildlife habitat, and remove dead and dying trees to protect the safety of those working and recreating in our federal forests.
All members of Montana’s congressional delegation deserve our thanks for their hard work to advance important federal forest management issues in our nation’s capital. Hopefully the passage of the forestry package in the federal appropriations bill is just the beginning in securing the comprehensive reforms we need to improve forest health and federal lands, protect our communities from wildfire and put more Montanans back to work in the woods.
Roman Zylawy, Laurie Johnston and Duane Simons are Mineral County commissioners.