A $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill meant to fund the federal government through September will head for a vote this week, and it could have major implications for Northwest Montana’s forests.
In separate conference calls with reporters Wednesday, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., discussed the bill’s forestry provisions. While the bill’s final text has not been made public, they say it could improve fire response and clear the way for more forest management.
One measure they all backed was its change in firefighting funding. Currently, when the Forest Service and other federal agencies exhaust their fire suppression budgets – as they have for eight of the past 10 years – they must use other funds, a practice referred to as “fire borrowing.”
This past September, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that the Forest Service spent 55 percent of its budget on firefighting.
“These [fire] costs drain resources that are needed to build and maintain trails, conduct research, and yes, cut a few trees, perform fire mitigation,” Tester said.
Under this bill, the Forest Service would have access to disaster funding, as is the case with other kinds of natural disasters. “Consequently,” Tester said, “it keeps the Forest Service budget whole, and that they can continue to do the management that needs to be done in the forest.”
Both Daines and Gianforte backed the change. But in their call, a few hours after Tester’s, they discussed additional shifts contained in the legislation.
The Republicans said that it includes a partial overturn of the verdict in Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service. In that 2015 case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to reconsult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when the latter agency expanded the threatened Canada lynx’s habitat to include 11 national forests. The Forest Service claims this ruling threatened 80 vegetation management projects.
Daines has frequently blasted the decision – and those who won it. “Unfortunately, fringe litigators, radical environmental extremists, are stopping common-sense forest management projects,” he said Wednesday. Now, Daines and his colleague in the House are promising some relief.
Gianforte said he hadn’t seen the bill’s final text, but that “our understanding is that this reversal of Cottonwood only applies to certain large forest management projects that have been authored in the last 15 years, and that would not apply to all forest management projects in the state.” After their call, Tester issued a press release lauding the move.
They also said the bill will bring changes in the regulatory approval process for forestry projects. Daines said “this package will streamline implementation of projects to reduce hazardous fuels [and] establish fire breaks.” Those are features, such as cleared areas, designed to contain a blaze.
Asked for specifics, Daines gave two examples. He said it would provide a 3,000-acre categorical exclusion for hazardous fuels reduction projects. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a categorical exclusion states that an action would have no significant impact on the human environment, and would generally not need an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
That adjustment, Daines said, means “less NEPA paperwork for those projects,” and “more latitude for hazardous fuel reduction projects.” The definition of a “hazardous fuel” is “broadly defined.”
He said it also eases the approval process for creating fuel breaks and fire breaks, “creating healthier forests, and also providing our industry with more access to timber.”
Montana’s lawmakers have regularly linked fire mitigation and the logging sector, visiting sawmills and raising the prospect of more forestry jobs as they’ve called for reforms like these. Their press releases on the bill included commendations from local timber firms. But commercial cutting isn’t the only treatment forests need, explained Andrew Larson associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.
A key goal for fire mitigation, he told the Daily Inter Lake, is to reduce “surface fuels,” the leaves, pine needles, and other organic debris that litter a forest floor. “You can’t do anything to reduce surface fuels with a mechanical treatment” like logging, he said, “and so that’s why prescribed fire is such an essential tool.”
The bill must pass by Friday to stave off a government shutdown. But it’s unlikely to end these lawmakers’ discussion of Montana forests. Gianforte described it as “a step in the right direction,” but said he would continue pushing pro-forest management legislation in Congress.
In addition to its forest-management stipulations, the omnibus bill also re-authorizes the Secure Rural Schools Program, which compensates local governments with forested federal land for revenue lost to dropping timber production. Tester Press Secretary Dave Kuntz said in an email that Flathead County had received $1.6 million from the program in 2015, and can expect to receive a similar appropriation this year if the bill passes.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.