Collaboration and reform in federal forest management were the main themes Tuesday during a roundtable discussion held in the Flathead Valley by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
During the first of three such meetings he plans to hold this week, Daines said he is working to develop a comprehensive forest management bill that would get the nod from all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation.
“I think there’s an opportunity to try to get something done, that’s why I want to seize this moment,” Daines said, adding that “D.C. moves at glacial speed.”
Lumber-mill representatives, environmental leaders and commissioners from Northwest Montana counties historically dependent on logging gathered in the conference room at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber to discuss ways to make national forests more economically productive, while satisfying environmental concerns.
Daines summarized what he believes is a history of federal mismanagement of national forest land, noting the state’s timber harvests on those lands have declined by 82 percent since the peak of logging activity in 1987.
He said that millworker employment has fallen by half during that time, putting about 3,000 Montanans out of work. Daines also said the U.S. Forest Service was spending too much money fighting lawsuits and wildfires while pine beetle infestations leave massive stands of dead timber that could be salvaged if logging companies were allowed to use the resource.
“It seems like the beetles and the forest fires are primarily managing our forests today,” he added drily.
Several timber industry representatives said that despite being situated in counties where federal forests occupy as much as 81 percent of the land, their operations were importing logs from as far away as Washington, Oregon and Canada.
Jeff Mills, a millworker at Stoltze, spoke to the fear and uncertainty faced by many of his coworkers with a dwindling the supply of logs in their lumber yards.
“There’s guys over there that are 30 years old and they’ve got wives and two kids and mortgages. What do you tell them? Are they going to have a future in the industry?”
He added, “We’re looking down the barrel of ‘spring breakup,’ we call it here, we’re looking at four months of no logs coming through.”
The county commissioners said their governments were similarly tightening their belts, with soaring unemployment and shrinking tax bases as mills close and their younger generations leave to find work elsewhere.
Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker thanked Daines for his support of Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes, two federal programs that provide money to counties with little income tax base.
She said her county, about 75 percent of which is federally owned land, was struggling to keep up with a shrinking budget and looking at cutting its four-man road crew in half and cutting staff to four days per week.
“We’ve lost over 1,200 students out of the district in the last 12, 13 years,” said Mark Peck, a Lincoln County commissioner. “It’s no coincidence that Lincoln and Sanders counties have the highest unemployment in the state.”
Peck said he moved back to Libby decades after growing up during the timber boom, and returned to what he termed “poverty with a view.” He also endorsed the collaborative approach to forest management, noting that his commission board had been supportive of the Cabinet Wilderness.
“You’ve got to get away from pitting wilderness against management, as if the two were mutually exclusive.”
Chuck Roady, vice president of Stoltze Land and Lumber, agreed.
“Part of that equation is wilderness, and part of that equation is managing our forests,” he said.
Exactly how to turn a collaborative approach into legislation was less than clear, however. Daines noted after the meeting he expects to introduce legislation in the next two to three months and outlined several policy options that could show up in a comprehensive reform bill.
Several conservation leaders at the meeting, such as The Wilderness Society, have worked on projects with the timber industry before and were supportive of increased collaboration. However, many in the room were quick to blame “fringe” environmental groups known for repeatedly filing suit against the Forest Service, effectively putting timber harvests on indefinite hold.
“We need to address the problem of obstructive litigation,” Daines said. “It’s holding up responsible, often collaborative forest projects.”
He suggested changes to the Equal Access to Justice Act as a step toward curbing the prevalence of such lawsuits. The act forces the federal government to pay a prevailing party’s legal fees if the government can’t prove its position was justified. Critics have charged that some local environmental groups have been taking advantage of the law to file frivolous lawsuits without bearing the costs.
Daines suggested a change that would require those groups to post a bond amount relative to the economic value of the timber sale being contested, forcing them to have “more skin in the game.”
But Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, said later that the proposed fix fails to address the real problem.
“This is nothing short of the industry and the government trying to get around the law by knocking people out of the ring that are trying to enforce it,” Hammer said in a phone interview after the meeting. “The problem with that premise is the old timber harvest levels and the old forest plans didn’t comply with the law. That’s why the timber harvest levels have dropped.”
And while Daines and others in the room clearly identified litigation reform as a top priority, he offered several other policy proposals.
For one, he said he wants money to fight wildfires to come from an emergency funding source rather than forcing Forest Service officials to “hedge their bets” each year in guessing how financially demanding the next wildfire season would be.
“Why is it that wildfires are not treated the same way as a hurricane or tornado, as far as being a natural disaster?” Daines asked.
He also stressed that he wants to come up with a specific target for forest harvest, frequently measured in terms of board-feet.
He said with each increase of 100 million board-feet harvested, the timber industry adds about 1,000 jobs, but emphasized that he doesn’t want to return harvests to peak levels.
“It’s not to go back to the ’87 [harvest] number, but we’ve got to do a lot better than 2013 number,” he said.
Later, during a meeting with the Daily Inter Lake Editorial Board, Daines noted that Montana has set a good example of balanced management on state forest lands and floated the possibility of a pilot program that would delegate administrative authority to state governors to manage sample tracts of National Forest.
“[Let’s] try that as a start, and prove it. And I think we can.”
Overall, Daines insisted that he values a pragmatic, compromise-based approach to reforming forest management, with an eye toward developing a proposal that could achieve bipartisan support in Congress, as well as the president’s signature, by the end of the year.
“It’s been said, ‘Some go to D.C. to make a point, and some go to make a difference,’” he said. “And I’m one of the latter.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., gathered timber-industry representatives, environmental leaders and county commissioners for a roundtable on forest management Tuesday at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. (Brenda Ahearn photos/Daily Inter Lake)