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State, Feds Ramp-Up 'Good Neighbor' Timber Projects

Truck carrying timber
Bell & Jeff (CC-BY-2.0)

The state and the U.S. Forest Service plan to ramp up a program on Montana’s national forests that uses timber sales with restoration components to fund non-commercial conservation work. The amount of timber currently being cut under the program could grow four times over the next year. The timber industry sees that as a much-needed boon.

A large industrial harvester is sawing quickly through trees on the Liger Timber Sale near West Glacier on the Flathead National Forest.

The Liger Sale was sold under what’s known as the Good Neighbor Authority, a cooperative agreement between the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and the Forest Service. The authority, authorized under the 2014 farm bill, allows the state to work on timber and conservation projects on federal land.

DNRC’s Neil Simpson says, "With Good Neighbor Authority, the long-term intent is to have diversity of projects, both timber sales, which generate revenue while they accomplish restoration objectives, but also other activities such as culvert replacement to improve fish habitat, or road improvements to reduce sediment into streams, and wildfire risk reduction and wildlife habitat improvement."

So far, the Liger sale is the third Good Neighbor project to get off the ground in Montana. All three have been timber sales, generating 8.3 million board feet and about $1 million. Those proceeds are supposed to pay for the state’s work and future commercial and non-commercial Good Neighbor restoration projects.

Officials say they are starting with timber sales to create a self-sustaining program. The state Legislature gave DNRC $2.2 million to hire a handful of staff in order to get the program off the ground. The logging and timber industry see benefit in this program too. Five wood products companies committed $450,000 to get more timber sales out for bid.

"I know talking to the forester, they’re putting up more sales. I mean, they're working on them. So that’s good. You got to start somewhere,” says Kevin St. Onge.

St. Onge is the owner of St. Onge Logging, and he purchased the Liger Sale. He says the Forest Service has been slow to get timber sales out to bid in recent years, but with the advent of Good Neighbor, he says things are looking up and others agree.

Good neighbor authority, I think is the best thing. And I’ve been doing this stuff for 31 years. I think Good Neighbor Authority is the best thing. It’s like sliced bread,” Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association says.

Altemus says the state’s logging and lumber industry has been on a slow upswing since 2008 when the recession brought home construction nationwide to a screeching halt. But she says that wasn’t the only problem the industry faced around that time, pointing to timber sales in Montana which were she says were being held up due to litigation. [See update below].

"The typical logging truck has 5,000 board feet of timber on a logging truck. So if you do the math, it’s an incredible amount of timber that was supposed to go to the mills that did not.”

She says the industry has nearly recovered from that time thanks in part to the Forest Service ratcheting up its harvest goals under the Trump administration and hitting them, particularly in Montana and northern Idaho.

The Forest Service is currently in the planning phases for nine Good Neighbor Projects in Montana. A number of those could move forward this federal fiscal year, producing up to 32 million board feet on top of the expected harvest of about 420 million board feet.

"Head rate capacity for the industry right now is between 500 to 600 million board feet," Altemus says. "So we could almost be back whole again."

But Altemus says that’s barring any of these sales winding up in court, which so far hasn’t happened. But concerns have been raised by some conservation groups about states having an economic incentive to push timber sales without a real restoration component, which Good Neighbor timber sales are required to have.

Jeff Ruch is the Pacific Director for the Washington D.C-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility or PEER. Ruch says, "They’re letting the state take over a significant part of the sale administration, basically letting your neighbor come in and sort your own pantry and that’s what’s going on here."

PEER brought this very concern up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general regarding a timber sale in Southeast Alaska.

"Good Neighbor was not a win-win," Ruch says. "It was a misnomer in that there was no restoration work being done, there was no reforestation even in areas where there were clear-cuts.”

While the logging industry in Southeast Alaska has been in dire straits for years, others in Montana share PEER’s concern that sales could be pushed through under the guise of restoration to boost both the statewide and local economies. It’s a question Montana stakeholders MTPR spoke with are thinking about, but want to withhold judgement on until the program is in full swing.

Correction 11/06/19: We removed a statement about the number of board-feet of timber in projects delayed or stopped by litigation because we could not verify that number. The earlier version of this story also failed to clearly attribute that statement. We regret the error.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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