In June, Montana’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock was elected chairman of the Western Governors' Association. The WGA is made up of 14 Republicans, six Democrats and two independents.
Tuesday, Bullock announced that he’s launching a new WGA initiative. He’s calling it the National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative.
“The whole idea of the Western governors coming together on this is really because it hasn’t been getting done in Congress.”
In a speech at Pyramid Mountain Lumber’s mill in Seeley Lake Tuesday afternoon Bullock said he wants to keep workers in the forest and put more logs on trucks, while at the same time protecting public land, air and watersheds.
Seventy-five percent of national forest and rangeland is located in Western states.
Bullock’s new initiative comes as he seeks re-election this fall. Arguments and proposals for responsible forest and land management have accompanied nearly every turn and twist of this year's gubernatorial race.
Bullock’s Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte, continues to challenge the sitting governor’s ability to turn his policy proposals into timely action as the state's timber industry takes hits in employment.
He issued this statement to the press in June.
"Unfortunately we continue to see the same pattern play out across western Montana. Thanks to federal polities driven by environmental extremism and a state administration that won’t stand up for Montana’s interests, the timber supply is restricted and we continue to lose good paying jobs."
On Friday, one of the world's largest owners of timberlands is shutting down two mills in Columbia Falls. The Weyerhaeuser Company cited Montana’s chronic log shortage and litigation tying up the Forest Service as reasons for the closures. Others point to soft demand for timber in the U.S., and the recent expiration of a timber trade agreement with Canada.
Gianforte says Bullock had four years to get meaningful forest management policy rolling, and now it's "too little, too late."
In Bullock’s speech Tuesday he said the health of Western lands and forests is at risk from fire, invasive species and drought, and Western states need to come together to find collaborative solutions.
"One of the major challenges Western states face is the difficult task of coordinating federal, state and private lands in a responsible and a sustainable manner. Achieving balance between competing interests is certainly never easy. And in Western states, with no exception, that job can be difficult."
Bullock’s Chairman's Initiative intends to put meat on the bones of a policy resolution that a supermajority of the Western Governors' Association passed in June.
That resolution asks for more federal funds to combat fires and legislation to create fire-resilient landscapes. The Western Governors also support funding and full implementation of tools in the 2014 Farm Bill to make forest and watershed restoration projects happen faster.
Some environmental groups have expressed concern that the Farm Bill tools are too broad, and will result in harmful timber sales.
But other groups support the kinds of collaborative forest management projects called for in the Farm Bill.
Mary Mitsos with the National Forest Foundation says Bullock’s initiative provides a great opportunity for cooperative management.
"It's important to include as many voices as possible, that’s what collaboration is all about. We need the timber industry, we need conservation organizations, environmental organizations, those who focus on wildlife habitat, the fire districts, the local counties. In my opinion, the bigger you can open that door so you can hear the voices, the more opportunities the Western Governors' Association will have to again move the needle."
One conservation group that’s interested in sitting at the discussion table is Blackfoot Challenge. Their chairman, Ovando rancher Jim Stone, attended Bullock’s announcement.
"It's really about this idea of this initiative to bring science, to bring partners together. And I think the next big step as communities in this valley or across Montana need to neighbor up."
Bullock’s initiative is less about specific management prescriptions than a call for more collaboration and consultation. Under it, the Western Governors' Association will host five workshops in Western states.
The first will be in Missoula September 20 and 21. It will focus on the effectiveness of collaborative forest management.
Bullock says he isn’t sure yet who will speak or serve on the panel at that workshop. But he says the WGA will gather input from federal, state, and private sectors.
Similar workshops will then be held in Idaho and South Dakota and other states.
There is no timeline for when all the initiative workshops will take place, or how their discussions will turn into policy.
The work of the governor’s program, like previous Chairman’s initiatives, may take years to complete - long past the timeline when Montanans decide who should occupy the governor's seat.