Senator vows to reform timber litigation laws

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Montana’s junior senator vowed to reform laws governing environmental litigation that he blames for Montana’s flagging timber industry, speaking during a roundtable discussion with timber industry representatives and local government officials in Columbia Falls Friday morning.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was joined by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry — a panel on which Daines also serves. The two senators led the hour-long discussion a day after joining the new Agriculture Department secretary, Sonny Perdue, at the Montana Ag Summit in Great Falls.

While he said a comprehensive solution to the struggles of the state’s lumber mills would require action within all three branches of the federal government, Daines characterized lawsuits that have delayed or stopped logging projects on federal forest land as the biggest barrier to local timber supply.

“You always come back to litigation at the end of the day,” he said. “You can’t solve the problem if you can’t crack that nut.”

Daines spoke to a supportive audience of local lumber-mill officials and county commissioners who endorsed his goal of reforming the Equal Access to Justice Act, which reimburses legal costs for groups and individuals who successfully challenge federal projects in court.

Dan Claridge, Vice President of Thompson River Lumber, said his family-owned mill in Thompson Falls has been working a single shift since 2005 — a labor reduction he blamed on the lack of locally available timber from federal forests. And that’s had a long-term impact on the available workforce, he added.

“Because this has gone on so long, people no longer believe in the timber industry like they had, so you no longer see young people wanting to step into the timber jobs because they don’t feel like there’s a future there a lot of the time,” Claridge said.

Daines said he’s working to help pass legislation reauthorizing the federal Secure Rural Schools program, which provides money to rural counties based on the federal-land footprint within their borders.

Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons attended the meeting along with commissioners from Flathead, Lake and Sanders counties.

Forest Service land makes up 90 percent of his county, and with the loss of bedrock resource industries that once drove the local economy, he said he depends heavily on those payments to balance the budget.

“It all hinges on Secure Rural Schools and PILT grants,” Simons said, referring to a similar program, payments-in-lieu-of-taxes. “I don’t know what we’re going to do if we don’t get that.”

Daines said he’s optimistic that a current Senate bill to re-start the program will ultimately pass, but repeatedly noted that his larger goal is to reinvigorate the region’s flagging timber industry in order to help local governments wean themselves off of federal payments.

Pam Holmquist, chair of the Flathead County Commission, said she supports reforms to the laws governing litigation by groups against the forest service, asking that the senators “give those people some skin in the game, because we pay their legal bills.”

No environmental groups who frequently land in the cross-hairs of that criticism were invited to the discussion. Local environmental groups have for years resisted calls to alter the Equal Access to Justice Act, fearing it would undermine the purpose of the legislation and their ability to serve as a watchdog when the federal government fails to abide by the letter of the law.

“Senator Daines’s job as a senator is to oversee the administration, and Daines or [Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon] Tester never talk about that they’re going to try to reform the Forest Service to follow the law,” Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said in a separate interview after the roundtable. “If you or I break the law, there’s always a penalty. ... There’s no penalty when the federal government breaks the law, and so they keep doing it over and over again.”

Roberts also listed an improved Farm Bill as one of his top priorities as chair of the Agriculture Committee, and indicated support for breaking up the sprawling Ninth District Federal Court of Appeals — which many in the timber industry have criticized as biased toward environmental interests — and placing Montana and other nearby states in a different judicial region.

And both senators sounded notes of optimism for a more harvest-friendly approach to federal forest land under the new leadership of Agriculture Secretary Perdue, who Daines said is “bringing a wind of change that will be blowing through the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.”

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

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