The U.S. Agriculture Secretary visited Missoula Friday to announce a blueprint to prioritize work for the U.S Forest Service.
Supporters say it will modernize the agency and cut unnecessary red tape. Opponents, however, counter it will undermine the nation’s laws aimed at protecting the environment.
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue says the Forest Service has metaphorically been bound in bubble wrap for far too long.
"We kind of became paralyzed about a lot of the things that we needed to do."
Moments later at Missoula’s Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center, Perdue signed the memorandum outlining the Trump administration's new priority list for forest service work. That list includes speeding up environmental impact reviews done for proposed projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"We’ve got forest plans that are 15-years long. I think we can do this in two years."
The memo also calls for making it easier to get permits for recreational activities in national forests and grasslands.
It extends grazing permits, expedites mining, logging and drilling projects and expands broadband service on National Forest lands.
The secretarial memorandum has the support of the Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation: U.S. Sen. Steve Daines who is seeking re-election and Congressman Greg Gianforte, who’s running for governor.
Gianforte says this policy shift will, "improve our forest health, reduce the severity of wildfires, and improve wildlife habitat. Today’s memorandum is about more than improving forest health and management though. It has real world consequences for Montanans who recreate on these lands."
Missoula-based WildEarth Guardians, which has a history of filing court challenges on proposed Forest Service work citing environmental concerns, describes the policy list as a gut punch that “destroys the fabric of the nation’s environmental safety net.”
“The Trump administration’s so-called ‘Modernization Blueprint’ is really just a blueprint for more public lands logging, drilling, mining and grazing at the expense of critical wildlife habitat and clean water,” Sarah McMillan, Conservation Director of WildEarth Guardians, said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said in a statement that Montanans know that reasonable forest management is critical to economies and ecosystems across the state.
In a statement, Marissa Perry, a spokesperson for Bullock, said the governor "looks forward to work continuing to restore the health and resiliency of Montana’s forests through his efforts and through an already strong alignment with regional leadership at the Forest Service."
*UPDATE: This coverage now includes a statement from Bullock's office that was received before the deadline of this story.