Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Agriculture Department Undersecretary Jim Hubbard spearheaded a roundtable this week in Missoula focused on forest and wildland fire policy.
Gianforte called for greater collaboration among stakeholders. Some stakeholders, however, were noticeably absent from the event.
Thursday’s forest management roundtable was held at the U.S. Forest Service’s Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center; a reminder that forest health and wildfire danger are inextricably linked.
Surrounded by firefighting aircraft in the base’s spacious hanger, 10 stakeholders invited by Gianforte’s office; including rural county commissioners, lumber producers and sawmill operators, offered their assessments of federal forest policy.
Not at the table? Conservation groups. I asked Rep. Gianforte about that.
Edward O'Brien: Lots of talk today about collaboration. Of the 10 people who are here, [there’s] not one dedicated conservation group. How come?
“We were thrilled to have the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation with us today, that is exclusively focused on habitat restoration for elk and sportsmen. We want to continue to have all voices at the table,” Gianforte said.
The Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies doubts that.
"He wants to have all voices that agree with him at the table," Michael Garrity says.
Garrity says he had no advance notice about Thursday’s roundtable. The Alliance is frequently at odds with — and in court fighting against — timber interests over forest policy.
Garrity said Friday that not only did he not receive an invitation, no one from what he called the environmental community got one either. And without that perspective, he says this week’s roundtable was simply an echo chamber.
"It’s not going to be a good dialog unless they invite groups that oppose some logging by the Forest Service."
USDA’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Jim Hubbard, Thursday praised the Good Neighbor Authority initiative that allows states to manage some federal lands. It’s hailed by some as a way to allow more local voices to help guide management decisions. So far, no Good Neighbor Authority projects have ended up in court in Montana.
"None of this works very well without the collaborative process," Hubbard said. "If those voices aren’t in the room, we usually don’t get very far."
The stakeholders attending Thursday’s roundtable were optimistic about collaborations like the Good Neighbor program. They also support expanded categorical exclusions, sometimes referred to as CE’s. These are projects that can bypass a normally required environmental impacts review.
The Alliance’s Mike Garrity says CEs are bad forest management tools and bad public policy.
"CEs aren’t what a democracy is about. It’s not open government. It lets the timber industry and the Forest Service operate behind closed doors without the public knowing what they’re doing," he says.
Lincoln County Forester Jennifer Nelson told Rep. Gianforte and Undersecretary Hubbard Thursday that she appreciates having CE and Good Neighbor Authority programs in the forestry management toolbox.
However, she cautions, "We still have to learn how to use them. I think that we need some help with that. There’s just a general feeling across the agencies that we don’t really know how to proceed with some of these, especially Good Neighbor Authority."
Nelson elaborated to MTPR after the formal meeting wrapped up.
"People don’t fully understand how the Good Neighbor Authority can and will work; right down from laying the projects out on the ground to how the payments come through. It’s supposed to become self-sustaining. How does it work? How do we make that work?."
USDA Undersecretary Hubbard says the Forest Service is making a concerted effort to better manage national forests.
"They’ve produced more commercial timber harvest volume this past two years than they have over the past 20 years," Hubbard claimed. "It’s on the right track.It's still not nearly enough, but it’s on the right track, headed in the right direction."
Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott agreed, adding lots of work remains to be done.
"We need broadened categorical exclusions. We spend more time, it appears, managing litigation than we do forest resources. Same thing is true with Equal Access to Justice. There needs to be a firm cap on attorney's fees; we’ve created a second story industry for attorneys. Frankly it’s stopped progress from happening on the forests," Chilcott said.
The Equal Access to Justice Act [EAJA] allows for attorney’s fees and court costs to be awarded to parties prevailing in litigation against federal agencies.
Conservationists point out they wouldn’t have to sue in the first place if those agencies just followed the law. Undersecretary Hubbard calls it a matter of interpretation.
"Different people see it in different ways; including different courts," Hubbard said. "The idea is for us to come together and agree on what kind of treatments make some sense, what satisfies most of the interest out there in one way or another, and then be able to implement that and have the courts support that with some consistent rulings."
Rep. Gianforte agrees.
"I think all voices needed to be at the table in these collaboratives, but you have to participate in good faith," he said. "There have been instances here in Montana where a collaborative worked literally for years to put a project together, and yet people who were at the table still sued. We have to prevent that sort of bad behavior."
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ Mike Garrity says, "Well, again, he’s ignoring the bad behavior of not following the law. Congress put in citizen enforcement for these environmental laws because there’s no county attorney to charge the Forest Service. It’s up to citizens to make sure the Forest Service complies with the law."
Undersecretary Jim Hubbard wrapped up Thursday’s roundtable in Missoula by vowing to invest lots more time in the forest management issue.