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

The Need For Comprehensive Federal Forest Reforms

There has been quite a bit of opinion writing lately about whether members of congress should focus on place-based federal forestland pilots, or whether they should work to pass comprehensive federal forest reforms.

On the one hand, place-based efforts are homegrown initiatives that carve out temporary solutions to meet local needs, while a comprehensive reform package offers sweeping changes that land managers, timber companies and timber-dependent communities can rely on for the long-term.

Under past Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee leadership, placed-based initiatives were the darling of the committee.  With different leadership and worsening forest conditions, that is no longer the case. There is a growing national concern over the health of our nation’s forests, escalating fire suppression costs, and the economic stability of our timber-dependent communities.

While the National Forest System was created to serve as working forests, external forces have been at play over the past 25 years that have made achieving the goals set in the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act almost impossible.

These forces include a handful of aggressive litigants working to prevent timber harvest on federal lands, 73 million forested acres subject to insect and disease infestation, rising fire suppression costs, layers of laws, rules, and regulations that drag analysis out for years, and declining budgets.

Of the 193 million National Forest System acres, 143 million are forested.  Of this total, 96 million are capable of growing 20 cubic feet of timber per year and are thus classified as “timberland.”  Of this subset, only 46 million acres are designated by Forest Plans as having a “timber objective.”  That is only 23 percent of the total acres.

Timber harvest has declined by more than 80 percent over the past two decades.  These reductions have devastated rural communities, where sawmills and paper mills provided some of the only stable, year-round employment.  Of the 56,000 direct jobs lost in the west, Montana lost roughly 3,300 jobs, 27 saw mills, and one paper mill. 

In 1990, the Forest Service sold 12bbf of timber and burned 4 million acres.  In 2010, the Forest Service sold 2bbf of timber and burned 8 million acres.  Currently the agency spends over $2 billion dollars annually suppressing wildfires.  This is more than 50 percent of the total Forest Service budget. 

Passage of the Farm Bill delivered new opportunities for the Forest Service to partner with state, city and county agencies to implement projects that not only restore forest health but economic viability to rural communities.  We are cautiously optimistic in the success of these programs, but recognize efforts will likely run smack dab into a buzz saw without further federal forest reforms.

The Forest Service currently spends $356 million annually on NEPA compliance, therefore reforms must: streamline NEPA analysis, ESA consultation, and judicial review of projects on the 23 percent of the federal timberland already designated for timber production.  Reforms must set volume and acres treated targets to ensure accountability.  Reforms must clarify to the courts that timber production is the primary objective, which allows resource managers to focus on timber economics in the design and implementation of projects.

Fire suppression dollars must be taken offline and put into a natural disaster emergency account.  The Forest Service can no longer afford to be a $2 billion dollar fire department.  It must focus on preventative forest health measures instead.

The Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) must be amended to ensure project recommendations brought forth through a collaborative process have standing in court.  Thousands of stakeholder hours are put into developing project recommendations only to have their collective work derailed by outliers. 

Judicial reforms include requiring plaintiffs to put up a bond to ensure frivolous lawsuits stop flooding the courts and that plaintiffs must prove to the judge the likelihood to prevail before a temporary restraining order can be awarded.

Collectively, these reforms set the Forest Service on a trajectory of reclaiming their multiple-use mandate, offers long-term stability to timber-dependent communities and to an industry that is committed to supplying the nations wood products.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus, thanks for listening.

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