Zinke bill aims for limits on forest lawsuits

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U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke

A new bill introduced in Congress on Wednesday aims to limit lawsuits against timber projects on U.S. Forest Service land while encouraging collaboration between stakeholders and making changes to forest project and rural school funding.

Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., is sponsoring the National Forest Collaborative Act of 2015, and said Thursday that the idea for the proposed law grew from concerns expressed by his constituents and Forest Service officials that timber project litigation was hurting forest health and increasing the likelihood of serious wildfires.

“In Montana we have a number of forests in rough shape and impending fire danger that should be a deep concern to every Montanan,” said Zinke, who is from Whitefish. “After I was elected, I went around and talked to every aspect of the wood products industry as well as recreation and watershed protection. And it was clear that the collaborative process is the best vehicle, in the short term, to restore our healthy forests.”

Zinke, along with the rest of Montana’s federal delegation, has been critical of lawsuits he says are preventing the Forest Service from managing the state’s national forest lands.

His bill would restrict the ability of groups to file lawsuits he characterizes as “frivolous” by requiring they post a bond equal to the amount the Forest Service will have to spend defending the project. If the plaintiff wins, the bond would be returned, and if the plaintiff loses it would forfeit the bond money to the Forest Service.

The bonding requirement would only apply to those plaintiffs that did not engage in the collaborative process to develop the project.

“This bill does not prevent lawsuits,” Zinke said. “It rewards the collaborative process and gives an incentive to participate.”

A press release from Zinke’s office said the bill was developed with the support of environmental and recreation groups, the timber industry and current and former Forest Service officials, including former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

However, Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan, said the proposal would obstruct people’s right to recourse when they disagree with a federal plan.

“I think bonds are a bad idea; they bar the courthouse from citizen oversight,” Montgomery said in an interview Thursday. “Not everybody can participate in every collaborative project. These lands belong to all Americans, and just because there are some local people that can attend meetings, that doesn’t mean that everybody else who really owns this land shouldn’t have a say.”

Zinke said he made the language determining what is or isn’t participation in a collaborative group intentionally vague to encourage broader participation by stakeholders. Asked if, for example, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies would be invited to be in one of the groups, and that showing up to the meetings would constitute participation, Zinke said it would.

The legislation also would clarify the ability of states to contribute money for specific forest projects on National Forest lands and allow up to 25 percent of proceeds from the resulting timber sales to be placed in a revolving fund to pay for future project planning.

“Some questioned whether or not the Forest Service had the authority to do that, and this clarifies that the state can come in and contribute funds for the planning process, or another outside organization,” Zinke said. “There was some concern that the priorities of state are sometimes not the priorities of the U.S. Forest Service, so this is a way for the state to bring the ball up the field.”

One of the main thrusts of the bill is to make more money available for wildfire suppression.

“There’s a lot of frustration in our Forest Service that they no longer manage forests, but they spend most of their money fighting forest fires, followed by litigation,” Zinke said.

Montgomery criticized that approach to wildfire mitigation as unlikely to make a real difference, noting that most of Northwest Montana is within a wildfire ecosystem.

“I think fire management is best done around structures and around communities, if you’re trying to mitigate losses of homes and infrastructure,” she said. “It will do a better job of reducing the fire’s damage to homeowners, rather than if you pick a spot way out in the forest and guess where the fires are going to be.”

Zinke said he hopes the bill, which he introduced into the House Natural Resources Committee, will receive bipartisan support. He said he spoke with Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., about the bill, and plans to brief Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., within the next few days.

Both senators have criticized the current state of timber sale litigation and expressed support for increased timber harvest in Montana’s federal forests.

Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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