HELENA — Some conservationists are miffed that they weren’t consulted before Gov. Steve Bullock nominated 5.1 million acres of national forest land in western and south-central Montana as top restoration priorities for the U.S Department of Agriculture.
The Democratic governor announced the nominations earlier this month, saying those forest areas are declining in health, have a risk of increased tree deaths or pose a safety risk. The farm bill passed by Congress allows governors to nominate priorities that would increase the pace and scale of restoration efforts that could include thinning and logging.
Some conservation groups criticized the governor for a lack of public participation in the selection process, saying the decision was made on the recommendations of a group hand-selected by the governor’s office and the Department of Natural Resources and Development.
The group met five times with no public notice, no minutes kept and no recordings of the meetings.
“Over the course of five phone calls they decided that 5.1 million acres of Montana forests should be opened to logging under weakened and streamlined public input processes and limited environmental impact analysis,” said Matthew Koehler, a forest activist with Wildwest Institute.
State forester Bob Harrington said six people were invited to join an ad-hoc group to advise him on the selection, the Great Falls Tribune reported Wednesday.
Members selected for the ad-hoc group included Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited; Barb Cestero of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition; Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker; Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association; Keith Olson of the Montana Logging Association; and Gary Burnett, of the Blackfoot Challenge and Southwest Crown Collaborative.
Governors had 60 days from the farm bill’s enactment in February to submit their nominations. Bullock spokesman Dave Parker said the deadline made the selection process that was used necessary.
“This is only the first step in the process, one which ensures vigorous public participation on a project-by-project basis,” Parker said.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, also was not involved in the selection process. He said there was no scientific basis for declaring the lands selected as declining or at-risk forests.
The bark-beetle epidemic has run its course across much of the state and the dead and dying trees that remain provide important habitat and food sources for wildlife, he said.
“By any ecologist’s definition of what is healthy, these forests are healthy,” Garrity said.
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