Governor: Forests in crisis require new approach

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A burnout south of Howe Lake in this stand of larch burned the understory of trees, but most of the larch should survive. Larch have a thick protective bark that makes them fire resistant.

An ominous mix of climate change, insect infestation, drought, increasingly catastrophic wildfires and a history of fire suppression demand an unprecedented and collaborative new approach to forest management.

So said Gov. Steve Bullock and other speakers at a press conference Monday afternoon organized by Bullock. Participants included Bill Avey, acting Northern Region deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service.

“We used to talk about fire seasons,” Avey said. “Today, we talk about fire years.”

Other participants included Tom Schultz, vice president of government affairs for the Idaho Forest Group, Mark Aagenes of The Nature Conservancy and John Tubbs and Sonya Germann of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“The work needed on Montana’s forests will take an ‘all hands’ effort,” Schultz said.

Bullock described the new initiative as “Forests in Focus 2.0: A Cross-Boundary Collaborative Approach.” He said the latest iteration of an effort to address forest health and wildfire threats is designed to build on the 2014 Forests in Focus initiative.

Among other strategies or actions, the Forests in Focus 2.0 will:

• Revise the state’s Forest Action Plan in 2019.

• Form a Montana Forest Action Council, whose members will include a diverse array of representatives, ranging from conservation organizations to timber interests.

• Confer with Montana’s 12 Indian tribes about forest health and wildfire risk.

• Employ the Good Neighbor Authority, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, to empower the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to serve as an agent of the Forest Service and use state contracting services to conduct forest restoration and management activities on the ground.

The state said industry, business and conservation partners will help pay for the work of the Good Neighbor Authority. Industry contributors to that effort include, among others, include the Idaho Forest Group, Montana Logging Association, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Sun Mountain Lumber and Weyerhaeuser.

Other contributors include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the Good Neighbor Authority “allows for forest project planning and management across all land ownerships.”

Aagenes said a collaborative approach will work to find solutions that won’t appeal to those on the extremes — to those who believe Montana can log its way out of trouble or to those who think Mother Nature should be given a free hand.

Not everyone applauded the collaborative approach as described by Bullock and others.

“These collaborative partnerships are the incremental privatization of public lands and resources,” said Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition.

“You don’t have to sell off public lands to gift public resources to industry at public expense, which is what these collaboratives do,” he said. “The collaboratives always resolve differences of opinion by logging public forests, just like the Good Neighbor Authority resulted in the collaborative clear-cutting of the Chessman Reservoir, Helena’s public water supply.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at 758-4407 or dadams@dailyinterlake.com.

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