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Montana Groups Butt Heads Over Rep. Zinke's Forest Bill

F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls, MT
Eric Whitney
F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls, MT

Montana's congressional delegation agrees on at least one issue; too many of our timber stands are sickly, overgrown, and fire-prone. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and Congressman Ryan Zinke say it's time to reform how we manage our National Forests.

Michael Garrity of the Helena-based environmental group, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, doesn't trust any of them to lead that charge.

"During the civil rights era we didn't let the Mississippi congressional delegation try to solve civil rights problems. I don't think our country is going to let the Montana congressional delegation try to solve environmental problems on our national forests," says Garrity.

Republican Ryan Zinke says Garrity's comment is out of line.

"Trying to relate the civil liberties of Mississippi to our forests in Montana? That's inappropriate and that's exactly the problem."

Zinke recently introduced a forest reform bill to streamline collaborative timber projects. The measure would limit environmental analysis to simple "action" or "no action" alternatives, eliminating the need to consider multiple options. It would also require bonding of would-be litigants before they could file suit to slow or stop logging proposals.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies has turned to the courts many times to stop logging projects it deems illegal. Executive director Mike Garrity says Zinke's bonding provision would have a profound impact on his group.

"We're not a big, rich environmental group, so it would mean we could no longer challenge illegal federal government (timber) decisions, Garrity says.

Congressman Zinke says bonding would prevent groups that weren't part of any collaborative process from intentionally bogging-down projects in the court system. He describes the provision as "rewarding good behavior."

"It doesn't stop litigation," Zinke says. "They're free to litigate, but they have to post a bond and it only covers the Forest Service's expense. If they sue, they don't have the right to have the government pay for it."

Mike Garrity counters that bonding requirement would be unconstitutional.

"The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees people's right to challenge government decisions. So a bond would only allow rich people to have that right, not all Americans."

Not so, says Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association.

"I don't know that I agree with their analysis," says Altemus. "Timber companies also have to have a bond, so is that a curtailment of their right to do business?"

Mike Garrity would prefer Congressman Zinke and his colleagues spend less time worrying about lawsuits and more time holding the Forest Service accountable for poor decisions.

"Right now when a judge rules against the Forest service there's no accountability. Nobody at Forest Service ever gets in trouble for breaking the law. If you or I broke the law we'd be held accountable, but no one at the federal government is ever held accountable when they break the law."

Garrity says his group challenges only poorly-planned timber sales. He calls them "illegal" sales that waste millions of taxpayer dollars.

The Wood Products Association's Julia Altemus doesn't see it that way.

"Logging is not illegal, Altemus says. "I never agree with Mr. Garrity's comment about that, ever. I completely disagree with his analysis of what the bill would actually do. It would help the Forest Service and the BLM be more efficient. It will help the budgets which are declining and it will certainly get the pace and scale of much-needed forest restoration work moving forward."

Whether Congressman Zinke's bill makes headway in Congress or not, Altemus believes some version of forest management reform isn't far off.

"Something is going to pass I believe this session. Maybe not by the end of this year. I'm hoping so, so we don't get caught up in the presidential election in 2016, but I do believe you're going to see some movement forward this year."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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