Before leaving office, Gov. Bullock finalized a document that will guide forestry and logging projects in Montana for the next decade. Montana Public Radio’s Nick Mott has more from just south of Livingston.
I’m driving an icy, gravel road in the Paradise Valley where private land meets the Absaroka Mountains. So on my left are rolling hills of grasses and shrubs and on my right are pine trees. I’m in one patch of about 3.8 million acres, mostly in western Montana, designated as “priority landscape” in the Montana Forest Action Plan, or MFAP. That means relatively low-lying forests prone to wildfire risk and other forest health issues, near roads and property.
Definitely a lot of fuel here. As in fuel for wildfire. Land managers for decades tried to extinguish all wildfire from the landscape — even though it’s a natural part of the ecosystem. That dousing of fire led to a buildup of potential kindling in forests.
"We’re seeing bigger, longer wildfire seasons. And those things don’t go away even when a pandemic is around," says Sonya Germann.
Germann, state forester with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the Montana Forest Action Plan is the framework that will guide how the patchwork of private and public landowners take on common concerns, like longer wildfire seasons, across the timbered landscape.
She said in addition to bolstering wildfire resilience, the plan seeks to combat insects and disease in forests, and boost the state’s timber and mill economy. While it emphasizes work that will bridge land ownership lines, it doesn’t say exactly how much of the roughly 4 million acres will be logged.
State forest action plans like this one are required every ten years to receive federal funding for forest projects — Germann said that amounts to about $3 to $5 million annually. The state started soliciting project proposals in early December.
"Now we need to get to work and actually get that work done across all ownership boundaries."
This once-in-a-decade forest management plan received about 80 public comments, which highlighted a tension between two differing views of trees: as something valuable in their own right, and as something valuable to people.
Here's Nancy Ostlie with the grassroots group Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
"There's always been a struggle between the idea of preservation of resources and exploitation of resources. And nothing's changed."
Ostlie's concerned about the impact of logging roads on wildlife and skeptical of the plans’ ambition of using logging to slow wildfires and improve forest health.
"I think the process is slanted from start to finish."
The plan was created by a roughly 30-member council, with representatives from conservation groups, local communities, state and federal agencies, and the timber industry. Ostlie said council members were by and large friendly to logging.
DNRC’s Sonya Germann.
"I think it’s sometimes, honestly, an easy out to say 'oh we see some people from timber industry who are on these groups, so therefore it’s gonna be skewed.' And that’s just not the case."
Germann said the timber industry is crucial to getting forestry work done at scale and at an affordable price. According to analysis from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, about two-thirds of Montana’s wood products facilities have closed since the 1980s. Eight big sawmills and over 70 smaller ones remain. Germann said the plan encourages innovation in how projects can both support struggling mills and reduce wildfire risk. It’s not as simple as taking more trees out of the forest.
"Forestry is an art and a science."
In terms of wildfires, Germann said there’s no way to stop those blazes altogether. But careful forest management can influence how those fires behave, and make both communities and wildland firefighters much safer when fires break out.
Assistant Professor at Montana State University Dave McWethy studies the impacts of climate, vegetation, and people on wildfire activity. He wasn’t involved in the creation of MFAP — but he’s read it. He said the plan offers sound science and a promising approach, but its goals are vague.
"The devil's in the details."
He said forest projects require nuance that often gets lost as projects are put together.
"There is a disconnect between the kind of traditional logging that will serve economies that are based on mills and more the traditional logging and, you know, the goal of being actually, fuels management."
Large-diameter trees bring in profit, but skinnier, smaller trees serve as more explosive fuel for wildfires. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to bridge this divide. Based on his academic work on timber projects across the Northwest, McWethy said projects under MFAP ought to emphasize transparency and engage with local communities throughout the process.
He also said climate change — not forest management— is the ultimate driver of the West’s wildfire problem. Warmer temperatures mean wildfires could impact more than twice as many acres each year, and that wildfire season could be three weeks longer by 2050.
"It doesn't matter how, whether we use widescale prescribed fire and fuels management treatment and small diameter trees. It doesn't matter how much we do that. We're still going to experience really large and intense wildfires in the future in the state."
What we can do, he said, is better learn how to live with fires.
The Montana Forest Action Plan is awaiting finalization from the United States Department of Agriculture , and projects could be under way by March. The plan, once approved, will also guide the Gianforte administration’s approach to where and how to log.