On an otherwise pleasant Friday afternoon, a small smoke plume appeared in the hills north of Helena. By Saturday evening, the fire had burned more than 2,600 acres and continued to rage.
Thankfully, the North Hills fire was extinguished without claiming lives or homes. But what if the next smoke plume appears south and west of Helena, in the forests adjacent to downtown, in the hills that hold water for thousands of Montanans? On behalf of Montana, I have intervened in a lawsuit that special interest groups filed to halt a forest management project aimed at mitigating these risks.
The U.S. Forest Service conducted a thorough analysis prior to proposing the Tenmile-South Helena Project, which will reduce fuels and lessen the chances of a catastrophic fire in Helena’s backyard. It will also improve access, which will, in the event of a fire, serve the dual purpose of helping residents escape and firefighters enter.
The state of Montana has a compelling interest in this federal case. Not only are the at-risk federal lands adjacent to state-owned lands, but a catastrophic wildfire in the Tenmile and South Hills areas could jeopardize lives, property, clean water, businesses, and even Helena itself.
This isn’t our first rodeo.
In 2014, special interests sued to stop the Forest Service’s Red Mountain Flume Chessman Reservoir Project, designed to improve forest health around the reservoir and protect Helena’s drinking water supply. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) joined with me in arguing the project was in the best interests of Montanans and should proceed. We prevailed. The judge rebuffed the plaintiffs’ attempt to halt the project, and they eventually dropped their lawsuit.
Since becoming Attorney General in 2013, I have made it a priority to ensure Montanans’ interests are represented in lawsuits trying to stop important forest management projects. In the last two years, my office, in partnership with DNRC, has pushed back against litigation aimed at obstructing Forest Service projects that are critical to fire mitigation efforts.
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Our involvement in these cases has made a positive difference in their outcomes. This is an important role of Montana’s Attorney General, and it is one not often exercised in the past.
Active forest management, especially in areas that border populations, contain watersheds, or have been ravaged by beetle kill, is good for Montana. It improves the health of our forests, creates and maintains jobs in our communities, and protects wildlife habitat and waterways.
Not long ago, I toured the Tenmile-South Helena Project area with Montana’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion. Leaders and scientists from the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and DNRC gave us detailed presentations on the work that needs to be done and the benefits it will provide. The need for this project was abundantly clear.
Looking back at my tour in light of recent events, it is also clear that a sudden fire outbreak in the Tenmile-South Hills area may be even more difficult to access and contain than was the North Hills fire. Considering the lives, homes, and watershed at risk, that’s not a comforting thought.
The delays caused by protracted litigation can add years to any project timeline. We must continue to stand up for Montana in court, but when it comes to protecting federal forest management projects from obstructionist litigation, the ultimate solution must come from Congress and the president.
I am hopeful that we will succeed in the Tenmile-South Helena case as we have in others. For the health of our forests and safety of our communities, we can’t afford more obstruction of forest management projects.
Tim Fox is Montana's Attorney General.