Amid Severe Fire Season, Finger Pointing Over Forest Management Heats Up

Republican lawmakers criticize groups challenging logging projects, including Swan Valley proposal

By Dillon Tabish
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, right, speaks in Kalispell alongside U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, left, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Beacon File Photo

In the midst of Montana’s severe fire season, a heated debated has reignited over forest management, with a group of Montana Republican lawmakers arguing that lawsuits halting logging projects are elevating wildfire dangers, while critics counter that GOP lawmakers are at fault for not recognizing climate change and failing to properly fund federal agencies.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently toured the Lolo Peak Fire, which has burned nearly 40,000 acres, forced numerous evacuations in the Lolo and Florence areas and cost more than $34 million.

“Montanans are saying we are tired of breathing the smoke,” Daines said on the tour, according to Montana Public Radio. “We are tired of seeing these catastrophic wildfires. And either we are going to better manage our forests, or the forests are going to manage us.”

Daines blames “extreme environmental groups” that have sued the U.S. Forest Service for halting logging and thinning projects that he says could reduce large amounts of fuel and help prevent wildfires.

“It is the lawyers who are funding for these extreme environmental groups, who are having a tremendous impact, (a) devastating impact on allowing us to move forward here on some common-sense timber projects,” Daines said.

The comments made by Daines, and similar ones made by Gianforte and Zinke, sparked backlash from others who say the GOP-led Congress has neglected to properly fund the U.S. Forest Service for fire prevention and forest management. Rising firefighting expenditures are eating up the Forest Service’s budget at an unsustainable pace — fire suppression consumed 52 percent of the agency’s budget in 2015, a number expected to increase to 67 percent in 2025. The swelling costs of wildfires have directly led to a 68 percent reduction in facility maintenance, a 15 percent cut to recreation and an 18 percent cut to wildlife and fish habitat management, according to the agency.

There appears to be widespread agreement that the fire-funding conundrum is serious and in immediate need of a solution, but some members of Congress have been accused of playing politics by making demands that would limit public involvement in the management of national forests to streamline timber harvests.

Critics also say the GOP, including Montana’s delegation, is failing to recognize the impacts of climate change, an issue that has elicited wavering responses and inaction among a number of Republicans.

Daines reaffirmed his stance this week following the latest lawsuit challenging a logging project in Northwest Montana.

A collective of conservation groups is challenging a proposed logging project along the east shore of Lindbergh Lake at the headwaters of the Swan River, saying the project would harm sensitive wildlife and damage habitat while also bucking environmental regulations. Four groups — Friends of the Wild Swan, Swan View Coalition, Native Ecosystems Council, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies — filed suit in federal district court in Missoula on Aug. 31, challenging the Beaver Creek Timber Sale in the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest.

The lawsuit clams the Forest Service violated federal law by failing to analyze the environmental impacts of the project with an adjacent project, the Glacier Loon, which is located in the same watershed and would be implemented at the same time. The cumulative effects of these projects should be taken into account, the lawsuit says. The suit argues that the two projects would have combined consequences that would negatively affect grizzly bears and lynx and their habitat.

The project encompasses nearly 35,000 acres and proposes commercial logging on 1,865 acres and non-commercial logging on 1,023 acres. If approved, the project would span five years and produce an estimated 9.2 million board feet of wood products. Prescribed burning would cover 1,777 acres, and 1,104 acres of that would occur within the Mission Mountain Wilderness. There would be 5.5 miles of temporary road construction for hauling logs, and another 52 miles of roads that are either currently gated or berms would be re-opened and used. At the same time, 4.5 miles of road would be decommissioned and 12.6 miles would be placed into “intermittent stored service” after the project is completed.

The land includes more than 5,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber Company land that is now owned and managed by the Forest Service. As part of the project, crews would install a fish barrier, upgrade one bridge and install or replace three culverts.

The project would cost the Forest Service an estimated $928,000-$958,000, according to the lawsuit.

“Beaver Creek is just one of several timber sales in the Swan Valley where the Forest Service still refuses to provide the wildlife security promised in a 1995 amendment to its Flathead Forest Plan,” said Keith Hammer, chair of Swan View Coalition. “We tried to fix that by attending countless collaborative meetings and field tours, but the Flathead refuses to abide by the law and its Forest Plan. If they’d manage the roads to provide the required wildlife security, they’d also greatly reduce the likelihood of human-caused fires.”

Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan, added, “The Flathead continues to violate its Forest Plan standards for grizzly bear and lynx with timber sales in the Swan Valley. The standards are there for a reason: to protect wildlife habitat. Instead the Forest Service prioritizes logging over wildlife.”

By building temporary roads and opening other sections for log hauling, the project area would exceed minimum thresholds for motorized density in projected grizzly habitat, it says. There would also be “low-altitude helicopter use in grizzly bear security core areas” as part of prescribed burning operations, which could displace grizzlies, the lawsuit says.

The nearby Glacier Loon Project would encompass 37,320 acres, including 12,000 acres of the Mission Mountain Wilderness. The Glacier Loon project calls for logging 1,405 acres, building 5.9 miles of new temporary roads, reopening 16 miles of gated/bermed roads.

In response to the lawsuit, Daines said in a statement, “It defies decency that yet another radical environmental group would sue to block a needed forest management project that would reduce fire danger.”

Daines has introduced legislation that would reverse a court decision from the Ninth Circuit, known as the Cottonwood decision, that has been recently used to justify blocking other timber projects, including the East Reservoir Restoration Project, a large proposed project in the Kootenai National Forest that covers 90,000 acres.