Time to Better Manage Our Public Lands

This year, the Forest Service spent more than $2.6 billion on wildfire-related expenses

By Morrie Stevens

Montanans are blessed with abundant public lands, which help support a large and vital recreation-based economy. Our national forests provide sportsmen with unsurpassed opportunities for challenging, fair chase hunts for Rocky Mountain elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer and a host of other game animals, both big and small. But there exists a serious threat to the Forest Service’s ability to manage and be good stewards of these lands.

The first problem arose when wildlife managers lost one of the most effective producers of wildlife habitats: timber harvests. Though forestry has always been partly about habitat and partly about valuable wood products, Montana’s wildlife habitat has suffered as timber harvests have dropped precipitously over the past two decades. Our federal forests have become overgrown, which crowds out forage for big game and game birds. More than 5 million acres in Montana are currently at risk to insects, disease and catastrophic fire. Attempts to remedy this problem using timber sales and thinning projects, which provides the successional habitats wildlife need, also reduces fuel loads and creates jobs, have been derailed by over-analysis followed by appeals or litigation.

The second problem is the cost of catastrophic wildfires. This year, the Forest Service spent more than $2.6 billion on wildfire-related expenses, with $700 million coming from accounts intended for forest management activities and recreation improvements.

Congress must solve these two problems. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, supported by Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke. This bill provides the dedicated professionals at the Forest Service new management tools to fix the fire-funding problem. It is now up to the Senate to act. The Senate must incorporate these management provisions or adopt similarly strong management enhancements to determine a fire-funding solution – and it must to do so quickly. Our public lands can’t wait much longer.

Morrie Stevens, president
Boone and Crockett Club

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