Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Friday that the state awarded $4.5 million to 14 forest projects meant to bolster the timber industry, restore forest health and reduce wildfire risk.
The projects funded fall under the Montana Forest Action Plan, a new document that will guide forestry in the state for the next decade.
The state received applications for 47 projects, and the 14 winners range in size from 1 acre to thousands of acres. The projects are mostly in Western Montana, but span all the way out to Carter County in the far southeastern corner of the state.
In terms of forestry, the projects run the gamut from fuels reduction in the wildland urban interface, to cutting down trees farther out in forests, to restoring non-forested ecosystems.
Here are a couple examples:
Sean Claffey, one of the winners, and conservation coordinator for the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership in Dillon, said the funding will supercharge their efforts on more than 3,000 acres to restore sagebrush steppe by removing pines, which have expanded into the ecosystem in large part due to a century of putting out fires.
"This is gonna allow us to really scale up and really maximize the value of investments that have been made over the last three or four years here in southwest Montana," Claffey said.
He said the group requested about $450,000 to pay for the work. In most of the project area, he said the group will work with the Bureau of Land Management to conduct prescribed burns after the trees have been removed. But in part of it, Claffey said the state’s funding will help fuel innovation in building a market for smaller-diameter trees that would ordinarily be too thin to earn a profit for mills.
The funding will also enable another project, called Wildfire Adapted Missoula, to treat more than 700 acres of forest near the Potomac Valley. There’s a patchwork of land ownership there, including private and The Nature Conservancy.
"But that’s the nice part about this grant," Michael Albritton with the BLM said, "is it's treating everyone's side of the fence."
He said the interagency team requested just shy of $400,000. Trees in the area are young, thin and dense, and ordinarily wouldn’t have much commercial value. So Albritton said the project will be a testing ground for a forest product that utilizes those thin trees and slash called "biochar."
"We’re hoping that this demonstration of the biochar will hopefully get some sort of biochar industry going in Western Montana."
Mike Garrity with the conservation group Alliance for the Wild Rockies said the projects awarded funding are a mixed bag. He said he fully supports some of the projects on the docket. But he said others that prioritize cutting down trees away from homes are just subsidizing commercial logging.
The federal government also contributed $500,000 to the pool of funding. The state prioritized work that goes across ownership boundaries, rather than on only state, federal or private land.