COLUMBIA FALLS — Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte is throwing his support behind a bill that would “streamline” the permitting process for some logging projects, a move that the state’s lone congressman said would help prevent intense wildfires.
Gianforte was in Columbia Falls on Sept. 22 to tour F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co.’s mill and promote the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman sponsored the bill and Gianforte signed on as a cosponsor this month.
The bill would make it easier for federal regulators to approve logging and thinning projects up to a certain size, Gianforte said. It would also allow timber companies to harvest recently burned trees quicker, which Gianforte said would be beneficial after this year’s historic fire season. Gianforte said the U.S. Forest Service is spending too much of its budget fighting fires and not enough on timber and thinning projects, which he says would help lessen the intensity of some fires. He also blamed environmental groups for stalling projects in court.
“We have a litigation problem because our current laws empower environmental extremists to file lawsuits and slow down responsible timber projects,” he said.
Officials with F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. said that if a tree is harvested within a year of it burning, it could still yield useful lumber.
Gianforte said that if Montana’s forests were properly managed and undergrowth was properly trimmed, the state would see fewer intense fires. When asked about research and data suggesting that Montana’s fire season is starting earlier and becoming more intense due to climate change, the congressman said, “There is not a lot we can do about the weather, but we can manage our forests better.”
The Forest Service spends more than half of its budget on firefighting efforts, limiting what the agency can do elsewhere. Many Western politicians have said that wildfires should be treated like any other natural disaster and that the federal government should provide emergency funding like it would for a tornado or hurricane. Gianforte is pushing for legislation that would allow the Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Agriculture to request disaster funding from the president for “catastrophic” wildfires, much like how a governor can request disaster funding.
Gianforte said he is optimistic that the Resilient Federal Forests Act will become law. He said the biggest challenge is conveying the importance of forest management and wildfire funding to those who are unfamiliar with the need.
“They just don’t understand Western issues back in Washington D.C.,” he said. “But it’s my job to be Montana’s voice.”