Snow may still be on the ground, but last year’s wildfire season isn’t too far from memory. We have good news for Montanans, though. After years of negotiation, we have finally secured a deal that moves forward on much-needed forest management reforms.
Montanans get it: a managed forest is a healthy forest. But decades of mismanagement, environmental lawsuits and excessive red tape have kept responsible forest management projects from moving forward on thousands of acres. There are many consequences to this delay, including increased risk of wildfire. Just last year, Montana lost over 1.2 million acres to wildfire. We toured wildfire sites, spoke with incident commanders and saw the devastation firsthand.
The deal achieved earlier this month cuts red tape, reduces fringe litigation, accelerates commonsense fire reduction projects, modernizes the way we pay for catastrophic wildfires and keeps the federal government’s promise to Montana counties.
This bill overturns a disastrous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which causes bureaucratic delays on forest management projects, including five projects that were halted in Montana. This decision left the door open for radical environmentalists to block responsible projects that reduce fuel loads. The Cottonwood Environmental Law Center v. U.S. Forest Service decision has left more Montana communities at risk for wildfire, and I am pleased we’ve taken concrete steps toward reversing this decision.
Another threat to Montanans’ safety are dead and dying trees. The Forest Service has estimated that there are now 6.3 billion of these trees across 11 western states, including Montana. They are kindling just waiting for a spark to ignite, and they threaten the safety of wildland firefighters, too. Tragically, two firefighters in Montana lost their lives last year after dead trees burned and collapsed. This deal cuts through red tape to accelerate the removal of hazardous fuels and implement fire breaks, lessening the threat of wildfire and making it easier for firefighters to put fires out.
Wildfires are costly to the federal government, the state, localities and families who lose homes, property and livelihoods. It’s time to modernize the way we pay for the most catastrophic wildfires, and we’re happy to report that this bill does just that. By paying for the worst fires as natural disasters, we can redirect more money within the Forest Service budget for other projects, like timber management and recreation.
This deal also enhances public safety and helps protect Montanans’ access to power by accelerating the removal of vegetation near power lines. It also removes barriers to allow states, like Montana, to have greater management authority on national forest service lands. This will open the door to get more restoration work done and will help get Montana loggers back to work.
Importantly, the deal also reauthorizes the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program for two years to get Montana counties $25 million to fund schools and roads. This program is critical for many rural Montana communities, and the lack of reliable funding creates uncertainty for these rural communities. This deal will fulfill the federal government’s commitment to rural Montana.
Unfortunately, far-left groups blocked other commonsense bipartisan reforms from being included in this deal. But we’re just getting started. Since serving Montana in Washington, we have advocated comprehensive forest management reform – and our efforts will continue. As we negotiate the 2018 farm bill, we will be a strong voice for more reforms, including a pilot arbitration program for Montana to cut down on frivolous lawsuits. We need to bring greater safety and security with more forest management reforms. Because Montanans also know, either we will manage the forests or they will manage us.
Steve Daines is a Republican U.S. senator from Montana; Greg Gianforte is a Republican U.S. congressman from Montana.