Congressman Greg Gianforte invited the media Friday to what he called a roundtable talk about the U.S. Forest Service Stonewall vegetation project near Lincoln.
He says that lawsuits blocking projects like Stonewall are standing in the way of healthy forests in the Montana.
"The benefits of a healthy forest are really clear. When we have a healthy forest we have more habitat, which gives us more wildlife, which produces more hunting opportunities," he said. "They also give us logs which go to our mill that provide good paying jobs in Montana. And fires are less intense and less frequent. So everyone benefits when we have a healthy forest. But our hands are tied because of the litigation.”
Amid the long dry fire season, Gianforte has joined fellow Republican, Senator Steve Daines in pointing to the Stonewall project as an example of “radical environmentalists” blocking forest management.
The Stonewall project was proposed in 2010 to reduce fire hazard and potential, provide timber products and support wildlife. But earlier this year it was temporarily put on hold by a federal judge in response to a lawsuit by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and another group.
Part of the area within the proposed Stonewall project is now burning in the 18,000 acre Park Creek Fire.
“The environmentalists are not responsible for that fire burning," Larson said. "And had the Stonewall projected advanced, it’s very likely that the site would be burning today.”
Congressman Gianforte agreed.
“The Stonewall project would not have prevented this fire," Gianforte said. "But what forest management does is that it reduces the intensity of the fires and provides natural breaks that inhibit their expansion.”
Gianforte’s press event today included Gary Burnett with Blackfoot Challenge, a community conservation group of on the Blackfoot River. Burnett said it was frustrating that the Stonewall project had been blocked after years of work, and negations, to get it rolling.
“If that process would have gone forward some of those treatments would have occurred. Would it have stopped the fire? No," he said. "But it would allow the forest service to do more staging; it would have created that shaded fuel break. I would have removed some of the fuels. It would provide a better way to defend town, if that project would have moved forward.”
Congressman Gianforte says it’s forest management projects like Stonewall, that, along with promoting a healthy forest, keep fires from spreading.
“By removing fuels we provide natural blocks to the progression of fires," he said. "It doesn’t eliminate fires but it reduces the intensity and their abilities to spread. This is very easy to see on the ground, if you see were a fire meets a managed forest its character changes.”
Tom DeLuca, the Dean of the Forestry School at the University of Montana says people shouldn’t get their hopes up about the impact of forest management proposals like the Stonewall Project
“It doesn’t create a system that won’t burn. It will potentially change the fire behavior on the forest, reduce the severity, perhaps make it more defensible space, but it will not stop fire," he said. "On windy, hot days, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it’s been thinned or not.”
While Congressman Gianforte didn’t specifically blame the Park Creek Fire on environmentalists, he says groups that continue to file lawsuits blocking Forest Service fuels reduction projects are partly to blame for the state's intense fire season.
“These repeat litigants are preventing communities from doing necessary forest management," he said. "And the consequence, in part is the catastrophic fires we’ve seen in Montana this year.”
Gianforte says groups have made a business model out of suing to block needed forest management projects, and these groups should instead participate more in the public hearing process when projects like Stonewall are proposed.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ Mike Garrity, which sued to block the Stonewall Project, denies that his organization makes money from lawsuits.
“The attorneys get their fees but we don't get any money for lawsuits. We don't have any attorneys on staff," he said. "The Congress wrote these laws to encourage citizens enforcement of federal laws. But again, if Congress doesn't like it, they should make the Forest Service follow the law rather than blame us.”
Gianforte said that today’s roundtable was the first stop in a "forest jobs tour." His office has not yet released details for future stops.