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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Montana Delegation Praises Forest Management Changes In Omnibus Bill

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

Today the U.S. House passed the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill with strong bipartisan support. It funds the federal government through September. The bill now heads to the Senate where NPR says it is also likely to pass with bipartisan support.

Wednesday, Montana's Republican Senator Steve Daines said there's good news for the Treasure State in the spending bill.

"We secured some very important forest management reforms."

Daines points to eliminating what he calls "NEPA paperwork" on national forest projects of 3,000 acres or less aimed at reducing hazardous fuels. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. Critics like the Center for Biological Diversity say exempting 3,000 acre parcels from that law is bad for forests and wildlife.

The spending bill also removes requirements to review some federal lands for critical Canada lynx habitat.

Daines praised the spending bill for ending so-called "fire borrowing" - that's raiding the U.S. Forest Service budget to pay for wildfire suppression instead of paying for fires like other natural disasters.

"It allows the Forest Service to use more of its funds on timber management, forest management and recreation programs, rather than fire suppression," Daines said.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester agreed that the Forest Service needs relief from wildfire suppression costs.

"These costs drain resources that are needed to build and maintain trails, do research, and yes, cut a few trees," Tester said.

Congressman Greg Gianforte says the spending bill has fewer changes to forest management than in legislation that he sponsored which was passed by the House late last year .

"The measures in this omnibus, although directionally correct, do not go far enough to address the threat and the devastating impact of severe wildfires," he said.

Gianforte and Daines both said further legislation is need to end what they call frivolous environmental lawsuits. The groups that file the suits say they wouldn't stick if the Forest Service followed environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.

It’s unclear when the final vote in Senate will be. The Trump administration has indicated that the president would sign the bill.

Congress is trying to pass the omnibus spending bill before midnight Friday, when current federal government funding runs out.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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