Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte took his “Forest Jobs Tour” to Columbia Falls Friday, touring F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company and calling for changes in forest policy.
Speaking with reporters and employees at the firm’s 94-year-old mill, Gianforte stressed the need for some logging and thinning, or “forest management,” to tame future wildfires and boost Montana’s economy.
“When we do forest management, we have more habitat, there’s more wildlife, there’s more hunting opportunities, we have more jobs in our mills, and fires are less intense and don’t spread as far,” he told the Daily Inter Lake.
To this end, Gianforte has co-sponsored the Resilient Federal Forests Act, introduced by Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., in June. Among other provisions, the bill aims to expedite the approval process for salvaging wood from burned areas, allow the president to declare major fires a natural disaster and free up emergency funds, and streamline the forest-management permitting process to curb litigation.
“The intent of this,” Gianforte told reporters, “is to allow input from the community, so all voices are heard, but to reduce the frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists.”
Environmental litigation has recently drawn logging supporters’ ire. In 2016’s “Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service,” the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that had the effect of stopping several forest management projects.
That, Gianforte argued, boded ill for both wildfire safety and the logging industry.
“We have over a billion standing dead trees in Montana,” he said. Some of them have commercial value. They certainly have the potential to start another fire.”
The Congressman was optimistic that the Act could clear the House, noting that a very similar one had done so in 2016. But “we need the Senate to act,” he continued.
Not everyone shares his confidence in forest management. Earlier this week, Tom DeLuca, Dean of the University of Montana’s Forestry School, told Montana Public Radio that while thinning could “reduce the severity” of fires, “on windy, hot days, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it’s been thinned or not.”
“Forest management won’t stop all fires,” Gianforte said of DeLuca’s analysis Friday. “But he’s wrong in terms of the fires staying in the [trees’] crowns. I’ve seen it myself...When fire approaches a managed forest, it drops into the undergrowth, the fire is not as intense, and the tree survives.”
And while this summer’s wildfires and hurricanes have spurred some lawmakers, including Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to discuss climate change, Gianforte downplayed the topic.
“There’s no question that the drought this summer made our forest season worse… [but] I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about the weather.”
“But we can do something about forest management, and that’s my focus.”
He found a receptive audience at Stoltze. Chuck Roady, general manager at Stoltze, explained that the mill was currently operating below capacity.
“The market for products is not a problem at all...What keeps us up late at night is the supply of logs.”
“If you had to put your finger on one thing that is constraining log supply, what would that be?”, Gianforte asked.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and difficulty in having access to our federal lands and logs,” Paul McKenzie, Stoltze’s lands and resource manager, replied. “Right now, we’re managing our forests based on how we don’t get sued, instead of what’s the best thing for on the ground.”
Stoltze staff then showed Gianforte their facility, describing the machinery and computerized control systems to the former software developer, and sharing other concerns, particularly competition from Canadian lumber producers.
Roady voiced support for many of Gianforte’s proposals, and considered him well-versed in the industry’s challenges.
“He is up to snuff on this whole forestry issue,” he told the Daily Inter Lake after the congressman had left.
“We’re pretty fortunate with our Congressional delegation of Montana, but the hurdles in front of us are trying to educate the rest of Congress that don’t live in the West, don’t experience wildfires, don’t see the national forests and the condition they’re in.”
Correction: This article has been updated with Paul McKenzie’s correct title at Stoltze.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at (406)758-4407.