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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Farm Bill Forestry Tools Still Controversial 2 Years After Passage

Live and beetle killed trees in the Helena National Forest.
Steve Jess
Live and beetle killed trees in the Helena National Forest.

State officials say the new kinds of forest management tools the Farm Bill gave them are good for both Montana’s forests and the state’s economy. But some environmentalists say those claims are dubious at best.

The 2014 Farm Bill turned 2 years old this week. It’s a massive bill, allocating nearly a trillion dollars for food, agriculture and forestry programs.

Montana’s new Fire and Aviation Bureau Chief, Mike DeGrosky, says there are important fire protection tools in the 2014 spending bill.

"The Farm Bill projects are a great opportunity for us to bring about some land management that will help restore the natural role of fire; to bring fires more into line with how they behaved in the past."

The Farm Bill led to creation of Montana’s "Forests in Focus Initiative".

In that initiative Governor Steve Bullock designated almost 5 million acres of national forest land to streamline logging projects designed to reduce fire danger. In July of 2014 Bullock approved $3.5 million of state fire suppression money for Farm Bill-authorized logging projects.

Here’s Paula Short of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

"Of that initial amount of money, $3.5 million, there was $1 million to invest in projects on the national forest system lands. We also had $2 million that we allocated for non-federal land. Those recipients included tribal forests, state forests and private forests as well.”

Short, DNRC’s Forestry Assistance Bureau Chief, says those non federal thinning and restoration projects produced over 5-million board feet of timber. She says the federal projects are anticipated to result in over 50 million board feet of timber to local mills.

Matthew Koehler is skeptical. The executive director of Missoula’s Wild West Institute points out the timber market is in the tank right now.

"Somehow Governor Bullock is able to claim $1 million in state money that’s being used to help the Forest Service do more logging resulted in 50 million board feet of timber being cut down. If anyone were to go through that with a fine toothed comb and look at the economics of that, it’s absolutely impossible."

But the Wild West Institute’s concerns about the Farm Bill’s forest management provisions run deeper than that single issue.

For one, Koehler believes Governor Bullock locked the public out of the forest designation process. A Helena judge did not support that assertion last year. Other environmental organizations including the Wilderness Society and Montana Trout Unlimited supported the Governor’s federal land designation process.

Koehler, however, maintains Bullock’s closed-door process was fundamentally flawed

"How would they feel about it if the process was used to designate and recommend 5 million acres for wilderness or for more grazing, or a host of other activities? We felt like the Farm Bill process that Governor Bullock used was not in the best interest of our public lands, and not really in the best interest of democracy."

Koehler says Congress used the Farm Bill to further chip away at environmental regulations and the public process to – as he puts it – "grease the skids for more logging"; even when there’s little market demand for more timber.

That’s not how the DNRC’s Paula Short sees it. She says Governor Bullock’s investments in federal forest management are producing both valuable plans and tangible, on-the-ground results. Last year he announced an additional $3 million in funding would be used for various forest restoration projects.

"Things that do everything from increasing recreational benefits to protecting critical stream habitat to all sorts of other non-forest products amenities. You’ve got products that you can recover off of forest restoration projects, and you also have forest restoration objectives that you can meet and those things are not mutually exclusive,” Short says.

The 2014 Farm Bill  includes permanent livestock disaster assistance, support for beginning farmers and ranchers, and savings of $23 billion. The legislation also includes provisions to protect prime hunting and fishing habitat.

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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