As the tug-of-war over timber continues in Montana, logging officials are hopeful that the recent bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to approve a slew of public lands bills could foreshadow comprehensive forest management reform in the next year when Republicans take control of Congress.
Others, including local conservation groups, are concerned that Montana’s congressional delegation is turning its back on the environment and passing legislation without proper public input, citing the 11th-hour attachment of the lands package to the nation’s must-pass defense bill.
By passing the collection of 70 national public land management bills, lawmakers cleared the way for forest management reform to rise to the forefront as the next obvious topic of debate in the West.
The issue was a familiar talking point for politicians on the campaign trail in Western states, particularly among Republicans. Many of those same places, including Montana, saw a significant shift from blue to red when voters hit the polls on Election Day.
Montana’s new leadership in D.C. will feature two Republicans — former U.S. representative and incoming Sen. Steve Daines, who replaces Democrat John Walsh, and freshman Rep. Ryan Zinke — and one Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester. The new makeup will look similar to a decade ago, when Sen. Max Baucus was the lone Democrat among Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Already, the delegation has shown the ability to work together, notably Daines and Tester, which leads some to believe forest management reform could actually overcome the perpetual gridlock in D.C.
“I think there is room for a lot more collaboration at the federal level, whether it’s moving forward a land management bill or my forest jobs bill, but we need to take into account timber, recreation and wilderness,” Tester said last Friday while visiting West Glacier to celebrate the North Fork Watershed Protection Act being passed with other lands bills. “If we take those three things into account, we can get some good things done in D.C. Now, for those folks who don’t want any trees cut, they’re probably not going to be too happy with that. But the truth is, that isn’t a realistic outcome, and it’s not a good strategy for managing Montana’s forests. A lot of the folks who are opposed to this don’t want anything to happen, they are perfectly happy with obstructionism and that’s not how you move a country forward. That’s not how you do what’s right for Montana.”
Zinke, who will be a member of the Natural Resources Committee in the House, has also come out in favor of working with Daines and Tester “to fight for real reforms that allow Montanans to responsibly harvest our timber and make a good living, while also conserving the natural beauty of Montana,” according to a statement he issued the Beacon.
Daines has already said that his priority will be drafting legislative reforms to “restore active management of national forests and address the systemic challenges facing federally-managed forests.”
Last week the freshman congressman from Bozeman, who will be an incoming member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, sent an open letter to Montana elected officials, conservation groups, timber industry representatives, sportsmen and other key stakeholders seeking input on revising the nation’s forest management.
In the letter, Daines expressed his support for increasing “responsible timber harvests on nonreserved lands.” Among the changes he said he plans to focus on are providing timely environmental reviews of timber projects, reducing obstructive appeals and litigation and setting clear harvest targets for the U.S. Forest Service to meet while giving the agency the latitude to do so.
“It is imperative that forest reform legislation improve conditions in all 10 of Montana’s national forests, create good-paying jobs in our timber industry, improve recreational access, and fulfill the federal government’s century-old promise to our forested counties to provide sustainable revenues for their schools and roads,” Daines wrote.
This renewed effort is fueling optimism within the timber industry, which has seen shuttered sites and reduced log harvests in recent decades.
“The best thing I see is the bipartisan support seems to be there between our delegation. They’re working together. They’re communicating. That’s huge for Montana and that’s huge for our industry,” said Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager at F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls.
“I look at this new Congress as a new opportunity for forestry reform.”
Tom Ray, vice president of northwest resources and manufacturing for Plum Creek in Kalispell, said the company is encouraged by the bipartisan efforts between Daines and Tester.
“We’re very heartened to see bipartisan support. That’s what it will take to move reform forward,” Ray said. “We’ll be urging them to increase the active forest management. We believe active forest management is good for everybody.”
Others are less optimistic about the delegation’s plans for managing public lands.
“(Tester) and (Daines) seem to have a contest to see who can be more anti-environmental,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, an environmental organization based in Helena.
The management of public lands is a perennial source of debate in Northwest Montana, where two of the most productive and contentious national forests exist: the Kootenai and Flathead. Combined, the two national forests span 4.6 million acres. While boasting a large sea of timber, the two forests also contain nearly 2 million acres of protected wilderness and hundreds of animals, including many threatened or endangered species, such as grizzly bears, bull trout and lynx.
The intertwined relationship of flush timber and beloved wildlife and wild places has consistently placed the two forests in the middle of contested timber sales and lawsuits.
“This whole push that there needs to be more logging has to be tempered with valuing the water quality, valuing fish, valuing wildlife. That really brings a lot of money into the economy up here,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director of the Friends of the Wild Swan, an environmental organization based in Bigfork.
“People come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. They don’t come to look at clearcuts.”
Recently, Kootenai National Forest officials approved the sale of roughly 39 million-board-feet of timber northeast of Libby. The timber sale, named the East Reservoir Project, calls for the harvest and fuel treatment of 8,845 acres near Lake Koocanusa.
Following the approval, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act, citing potential harm to threatened and endangered species and their habitats.
The environmental organization continues to review the project with attorneys and has not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit, according to Garrity.
“There’s the option of working it out and ideally that’s what would happen to avoid litigation,” he said.
If the sale were tied up in court, it would mark the latest in a long line of prominent sales halted in the region.
Following several court decisions that halted timber sales in recent months, both Plum Creek and Stoltze have reduced production at their mills, citing a shortage of logs.
Plum Creek continues to operate two shifts at 36 hours per week, instead of 40, at its Columbia Falls sawmill. Ray said the company is reviewing the situation on a month-to-month basis and could return to full shifts by spring.
Besides laying off 10 employees, Stoltze has reduced its production hours in Columbia Falls from 80 hours per week to 60 hours since late September.
Roady said he hopes the mill would be able to return to full shifts after the holidays.
Environmental groups have questioned timber executives who criticize the log supply by pointing at the latest figures from the U.S. Forest Service showing the region met its harvest goal for fiscal year 2014.
Roughly 280 million board feet of timber was harvested from Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014 in Region One, which encompasses Montana, North Dakota, Northern Idaho and Northwestern South Dakota.
Of the timber harvested in the region, 54 percent ended up being saw logs that could be manufactured in mills. The other 46 percent amounted to nonconvertible products, such as biomass, firewood and saplings.
According to Forest Service data, the Flathead National Forest had six separate timber sales valued at over $100,000 in the last fiscal year. The Kootenai had four sales valued over $100,000 and one sale worth over $1 million.
“That’s a fraction of what it’s capable of,” Roady said. “As a forester and a person that enjoys hiking around and hunting the land, I’d like to see more acres treated to improve our forests’ health.”